My American Dream: City of Angels
Los Angeles from a Plane, 2023 Oil on linen 75 × 100 in. (190.5 × 254 cm)
Los Angeles from a Plane, 2023
Oil on linen 75 × 100 in. (190.5 × 254 cm)

Los Angeles from a Plane is from my own photo, taken on a trip to Berlin several years ago when the plane was circling overhead en route to LAX to land.  The view is also like what I see en route to my job teaching as a full professor of art at the University of Southern California, and from where I park on top of one of their parking lots, edifying to see in every way to remind me of the greatness-and also the mystery and intensity—of our fair city.

Before coming to LA eight years ago to teach at USC, I was with my husband in Manhattan, where I also painted many images of that Gotham cityscape—from the top of the Empire State Building, of One World Trade Center, and more (even from the rooftop of where we lived before first coming to California, on 46th Street and Fifth Ave!).  This is my first painting of Los Angeles, and I was thinking of the great Wim Wenders 1987 film Wings of Desire when angels are “flying” from overhead Berlin.  I wanted this image to have a similar kind of wonder, and feeling, from the POV of the sky, making Los Angeles, if not like an island like Manhattan, a sublime landscape of population and building spread out over the territory of Southern California, but with the land and the sky ultimately not overwhelmed—humankind cohabitating with Nature and the world.

While painting, I listened to the great City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, in addition to all the music from Southern California that inspired me then and now about the “California Dream”.  I love Cézanne, and his paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, and wanted (also being a son of a psychoanalyst, with a penchant for the unconscious) to have my conscious mind render what I saw in the photo, but also my unconscious to bring out the subconscious world suggested by the pixels and “noise” of the image.  I took the image through the window with an iPhone, at not a super high resolution, and although I’m looking at a large 17 x 22” glossy high-res print of the original image, there is a lot of distortion in the tiny details of the image.  I always like to paint the pixels as if they are “real” and feel the secret to the sublime is micromanaging all the elements to the macro-managed whole—so everything is “touched” and “alive”, and tried to do this here, allowing my “right brain” to direct my instinct listening to the book and the music, while my left brain also controlled my brush.  The creator of the Muppets Jim Henson believed that, like in his Fraggle Rock series, there were whole worlds just beyond ours, and loving the American Transcendentalist spirit of transcendence of nature (and teaching comics for over 30 years!) it’s fun to “see” other dimensions and worlds in the optical abstractions suggested by the minutiae of an image.  I think part of the power of cartoons is that our inner brain doesn’t have the details of memory to render in our minds eye the exactitude of representations—so if we could project our dreams on a screen we might see essentialized forms, “smiley faces” and the like, and project onto them meaning (that’s grandpa!).  When we are looking at clouds, or any other super detailed information, to make sense of it, as human being animals, just as a survival skill to see ancient predators, our inner mind might organize the information to cognize faces, forms, other “recognizable” figurative subjects.  I don’t want to make up the images I see, but use the reference of what I’m looking at, like Cézanne looking at nature, as like a “map” to project my own unconsciously derived forms and figures.  That’s what’s happening here in the details of the image—but allegorically, also like to think that this is the inner world of Los Angeles as a buzzing beehive of activity, the collective unconscious of the many different peoples and energy working and forming the city that lives and breathes onto its own.

Los Angeles, like critical theorist Jean Baudrillard states in his America, is a city that is in “in love with its limitless horizontality”, and like in his Simulations, posits the city as a simulacrum of a civilization that was built on the false promise of good health and wellness, importing water and its people to build a utopia—that many see now as a dystopia—of the California Dream.  I’m grateful, after a lifetime of wanting to live in Southern California, to finally be here—but after being in the center of everything in Manhattan for 25 years, my husband and I wonderfully live in the middle of nowhere in the desert region of Riverside, coming in twice a week to teach at USC and to visit for art events and exhibitions.  I love the teeming city, but also am a little overwhelmed by it, in a sublime way that makes me feel a small part of a much bigger thing, and ultimately feel I belong here.  The art world is behind the front lines of the cultural enterprises of movies, television, music and more, and there is much freedom here to riff off the machinations that help to inform global culture and ideology—it feels like America on testosterone—and I ultimately hope the vibrancy, power, and optimistic energy of how Los Angeles can help bring us into a positive future with its great influence, is depicted here (and I signed my name like a tag in graffiti in the corner, just to claim my space!)