Like many things done at marathon length, a trip to the flea market can turn into an fever pitch death march, a flaneur's heroic odyssey amidst a sea of curiosities, human and object, in which you're blown about by your interests and hunches, until just getting back to your car with your mind intact, if not some captured trophy, seems a triumph.
During six hours under the hot sun at the once-monthly Alameda Flea Market last week, I carted off a succession of things, whose warped eccentricities fun-house mirrored the event's twisted dreaminess. I got there early, and before light dawned, I bought a painted jug lamp for $25. I like painted furniture because it allows me to enjoy a relaxed decoration that I could never tolerate on a formal painting. There are three scenes that encircle this jug like an endless narrative, in which a family of monkeys poses with modernist furniture, watches themselves on TV, and observes the distance through binoculars. The paint handling is milky smooth and the figuration cartoon realism. It's hard to say how old the actual jug is, but the images and the electrical hardware date from the 1970s, that anthropology-obsessed decade which reflected us back to ourselves through entertainments like Reel Family and Planet of the Apes.
Three long hours later I found a painting by Gordon Wagner, a post-war artist from L.A. best known for his assemblages, which came at the beginning of a tradition that includes George Herms, Ed Kienholz, Wallace Berman, and Betty Saar. It's awkwardly titled Water Pool, probably dates from the early '50s, before Wagner shifted entirely to assemblage. I read it as an essay on pictorial flatness, and an attempt to create an abstract language to represent the depths of consciousness. The top coat, we'll call it, is a coarse black scrim that hangs on the red layer beneath it like a moth eaten sweater. These two layers form the ruddy physical protection for the eerie pond underneath, illuminated in one tiny area by a chartreuse moon, partially obscured to indicate that this inner light is no landscape reflection but some interior glow.
Buoyed by the fact that at $175 there is lots of money to be made on a Gordon Wagner, I talked myself into buying a small scale ink and watercolor abstraction from 1964 by John Ihle, a printmaker who taught for many years at San Francisco State. I'm a low wattage fan of Ihle. The works are usually semi-figurative etchings that are hard to sell, but this 7 x 9 inch picture contains a world of interesting decisions, and the seller neglected to research the artist. For $35 I agreed to continue my pro bono employment as superintendent of the isle of lost paintings.
I next stumbled on an older, exurban guy divesting himself of an outsider art collection. Part of me would like to give up on the world of mainstream art and just focus on the weirdoes that fill the pages of Jim Shaw's Thrift Store Art. I never fail to respond to the wrongness of art that's so bad it's good. It must touch on something like the wrongness in me. But in this guy's collection the wrongness was generically reconstituted as style and I wriggled off the hook on everything but two campy pictures inspired by the golden age of Hollywood from the 1990s by someone named Colleen Young. The dealer's speculative biography of the artist was highly unlikely, implying she painted these demanding pictures in her nineties, further placing into doubt the confused story behind the entire collection, which I never could completely put together. And it made me realize that what really I should do is liquidate these lame ass objects I find into an oral history of the sellers' accounts that go with them. I went ahead anyway and popped $75 each for them. Back at my car, I cold see that the artist cheated her way to painterly detail by working on top of collaged pictures of the images. It wasn't like she tried to hide it, I just missed it in the visual scrum of the booth. Even so, the picture's red carpet gaiety and horror vacui kept me entertained.