Nichols Canyon, Redux

I went to see the David Hockney exhibit at the Royal Academy early this evening.  There were a variety of reasons that I went, but the primary one was that I do love Hockney’s work, and the idea of what he was creating on his iPad intrigued me. 

The following is a piece about an experience I had a little over a decade ago with a work of Hockney’s.  I started writing this essay six years ago; posted it almost exactly five years ago to my old blog, and I have edited it (significantly) to reflect my original notes, rather than what the workshopping of it yielded for the post. 

I’m not sure I fully understood — or wanted to hear — what anyone was trying to tell me when I lived in Los Angeles; least of all what any artist had to say.  And so my views on the painting, LA, and everything else have changed a bit since I wrote this, but I didn’t quite know it until I got through the exhibit, to the last few galleries.

More later on what I found there.  But I left feeling as if I had satisfactorily resolved something, though I’ve yet to fully understand what.

(Nichols Canyon: 11 February 2007)

I remember, about five summers ago, going to a party someone was throwing when the David Hockney photography exhibit opened at MOCA in Los Angeles.  I was caught up with all the fabulously black-clad poseurs: the lawyers and the architects; the artistes, and the fashionistas; the guy who made his own vodka.  I was working on a fellowship at an art foundation that summer so I was around art and money, and buzzing, fawning crowds of art enthusiasts.  The Hockney party had been one party in a series of many, similar ones, and I left the event that night with a headache and a closed-in feeling from having been pushed and pulled by all the moneyed patrons trying to get a better look at things.  It was a weird, sweltering kind of claustrophobia that set in that summer—the kind that made it abundantly clear that my time in Los Angeles was coming to a dead end.

Los Angeles was a cosmopolitan city in the dictionary sense of the word.  One didn’t see the same homogeneous power-playing of the dusty-moneyed elite that one might see where it was older, colder, more settled in its ways.  There was a certain Socratic dreaminess about Los Angeles, but Los Angelenos were far too cosmopolitan to recognize it as such.  There was an innocence, and an ignorance, and a carpe-diem-or-be-damned-ness about the place.

There was also a toughness about LA.  Los Angeles was a hard fought victory.  Mulholland and his intrepid brethren beat back nearly 400 miles of desert and mountain to feed cool streams into the parched motherland.  Generations of dark-skinned workers lost life and limb to blast out the canyons so little darlings like me could speed through them at night blasting meaningful music and spinning out on the curves.  Girls like me spun out or spun themselves straight — in either instance, they never told daddy or the insurance company how the alignment got messed up; why the brakes hadn’t caught.

But for all the universality and toughness, there was also a soul-suckingness too.  The canyons were full of ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men.  Los Angeles sucked the eastern Sierra snowmelt from its rightful owners and nursed, nurtured four million thirsty mouths, giving nothing back to the mountains, all the while demanding a sort of ransom from those within the city walls.  It nipped at the heels and ankles of the very lives it nurtured with the expectation of something, anything in return.  It wanted love.  It wanted life.  It thrived on the waste its dependents created.  The city was both a cosmopolitan life-force, and a detritus-feeder.  Go figure.

Los Angeles, in all its parched, sun-baked glory, was a city of drivers who traveled from point A to point B in the climate-controlled comfort of their own cars.  The urban sprawl spawned a uniquely solitary and stoic culture of commuters.  Each morning, they entered their pods and traveled to their destinations.  They sipped their coffee, and curled their eyelashes, and picked their noses in relative peace and silence, seemingly indifferent to each other and the world around them.  The bright, glittering pavement was literally teeming with these pod people—the streets of Los Angeles were almost invariably choked with cars.

Nichols Canyon Road was one trafficky side-street forking off the well-traveled path.  The road was nestled high in the Hollywood Hills, rising above Los Angeles, snaking down the hillside, and joining with Hollywood Boulevard well east of the 101. On the way down, the road was dotted with the homes of the glitterati.  At the top, it flirted with, but stopped just short of Mulholland Drive.  It was post modernism at its finest—it was often choked with traffic, but the road itself went nowhere.  Nichols Canyon Road was a cul-de-sac.  Los Angeles was a maze of cul-de-sacs; roads that went nowhere.  Some were grand in scale like Nichols Canyon; some were minute, like the ones found in the ticky-tacky developments that had sprung up all over The Valley.  They defied all logic, all reason.  Looking back on my time in Los Angeles, I realized that it wasn’t the dry summers or steep canyons or the endless streams of traffic that finally drove me away.  It was the cul-de-sacs that finally got to me.

Late one night, after an evening of summer jazz on the art foundation’s dime, I convinced the guy I was dating to drive to the end of Nichols Canyon.  At night, the canyon road was much more intimidating that the sunny David Hockney painting of the same name might lead one to believe.  By day, the canyon was brightly colored and inviting—a favorite spot for joggers.  By night, however, it was dark and somewhat isolated, dotted with the craggy moonscape of the original Los Angeles desert.

“Why are we here?” the boyfriend asked when we got to the top of the hill.  I parked the car at the end of the road, ready to turn around and bolt at a moment’s notice.

“It was a nice drive,” I said tightly.


We sat in silence for a moment, lacking the intensity of a couple in love, lacking the lusty tenderness of two twentysomethings alone in a canyon.  A stoic silence pervaded the car.

Stoicism (as you may know) preached a philosophy of reason free from passion.  Freedom from passion meant apathy (Greek, apatheia) or freedom from suffering.  Stoicism, then, was essentially a life philosophy aimed at reducing human pain.  To be a stoic meant to live in accordance with reason and virtue — the four cardinal virtues being wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance — and to live in harmony with natural law.  Stoicism in modern usage, however, had come to mean merely a philosophy of categorically subverting one’s emotions.

We both wanted so badly to be intelligent and still a little innocent, and on top of that, tough to the suffering the other might cause.  We tap danced around each other, permitting nothing of the other’s to cleave, lest it hurt too badly when torn away.  So we sat in a silent car in a silent canyon on a beautiful July night, at the end of a cul-de-sac, at an absolute impasse.

Just over the hill, the city glowed, pulsed and throbbed — like what I’d seen in the Hockney paintings and photos.  In the car, we were detatched from that.  There was a deadness that had been carefully cultivated over time.  The Los Angeles of David Hockney’s imagination was bright, colorful, like the Nichols Canyon painting; like Nichols Canyon in the daytime.  In my car, however, there was a blandness that had been layered on over two otherwise passionate people.

It was stifling.  And it was all the same.

“Are we going to make out?” the boyfriend asked, blasé, as if he were indifferent to the answer.  There was a closed-offness to his voice — his throat was a cul-de-sac.  It was as if he had figured out a way to hold what he felt in that pocket where the uvula hung like a tiny, unpunched punching bag in an empty gym.

“No,” I said, equally unaffected.  I stayed with him because I was supposed to, but not because I wanted to.


“So we have nothing to talk about?”  I asked the boyfriend.  I didn’t want him to hear the hitch in my voice; the uncertain place where the words caught in the tunnel of my windpipe and couldn’t find the right way back out.

Receiving no response, I turned the car around at the dead-end of Nichols Canyon Road, navigated my way back down the hillside, headed back towards the Westside.  I paused briefly at the bottom of the hill at the stop sign, my blinker flashing in the night.  The hillside was illuminated orange with the glow of cheap street lamps, purple with the moonlight reflecting through the coastal haze, almost like a pop-art painting splashed on my rear-view mirror.  I pulled away slowly, inching out on to Hollywood Boulevard, the lights fading behind me as I drove.

Within the year, I left Los Angeles for good.

It wasn’t until years later, seeing a copy of the Nichols Canyon painting in someone’s office, that I remembered what it was like to sit at the top of the canyon road on a summer night, and breathe in the July air tinged with a hint of salt from the coast, and let my guard down for just one minute to be more innocent than intelligent.  The painting itself was almost whimsical, whereas the canyon, like any other canyon in Los Angeles, had treachery around every turn.  And while I liked Hockney’s rendition quite a bit, I couldn’t help but feel a smug, art-lover’s attachment to the view I had seen in my rear view mirror as I left Los Angeles.

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