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Still Steaming 

Wednesday, Aug 9 2006
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Brett Goldstone stands before one of his steam-powered creations that, at least among his own circle of artistic co-conspirators, make him renowned. It’s a massive machine that resembles a crude iron wagon. Attached to the back is a rusty boiler that Goldstone fills with wood, stopping now and again to twist a knob or tighten a bolt. Smoke and steam mix in the air as the water nears its boiling point. “Smells like a steam show,” says Tim Quinn, who co-runs the Little Tokyo–adjacent Dangerous Curve gallery, where a slew of old friends gathered last Saturday to celebrate and wax nostalgic on the work of Goldstone.

The gathering has the air of a neighborhood block party: Kids on skateboards zigzag in and out of the parent-heavy crowd. A punk rock band plays. Fourth Place, a small eddy off Molino Street, sees no traffic after sundown. Everybody knows each other.

If all goes as planned, Goldstone will “activate” his machine, which I later learn isn’t a wagon but a ship. The steam will jostle two old car pistons into a powerful rhythm, propelling two man-size gears that slowly elevate the ship’s stern before letting it, and any brave souls who volunteer to be passengers, slam suddenly back to its flat position. It’s supposed to mimic a rocky ocean. “More like the Rocky Mountains,” says one knowing onlooker.

It’s been a decade since the artist’s last “steam show,” but the smell is still familiar to this crowd. Immigrating to Los Angeles from New Zealand in 1979, Goldstone became the ringleader of a small artists community that gathered in various downtown locales in the ’80s and early ’90s to play with steam and metal.

The shows took place in a variety of unsanctioned spaces, including one of Goldstone’s old studios in Chinatown, which he called the “Boys’ Building” in a playful jab at the nearby Women’s Building. But no space was as popular as the L.A. River. Far enough removed from the eyes and ears of suspicious authorities but expansive enough for spectators to keep a safe distance from the cantankerous monsters of metal, the river scene was perfect. Or almost perfect.

At a Fourth of July show in 1991, Goldstone activated a homemade, steam-powered rail car on an abandoned track of the Santa Fe Railroad under the North Broadway Bridge. The cops showed up, cuffed him and slapped him with a citation (which was later dismissed). The original paper ticket is posted on the wall at Dangerous Curve. It hangs there, proudly, among pictures of old steam shows and newspaper clippings about some misfit’s tomfoolery in and around other, sanctioned art events — redirecting gallery-goers to view his own installations on Skid Row, or shouting insults at crowds outside MOCA from a nearby tree. That misfit, who called himself “Art Attack,” was Goldstone.

He’s since dropped the moniker, and with it, the mischief that nearly got him arrested on more than one occasion. Now he works out of a studio in Lincoln Heights, building decorative metal gates on commission. (Those are his at Fletcher Drive and the L.A. River in Atwater.) Somewhat cartoonish, though clearly the work of a weathered welder, the gates are . . . nice. But for all their charm, they lack the primitive and dangerous quality of Art Attack’s Old World machines.

“I tell people they’re decorative art,” says Goldstone of his gates, placing the emphasis on decorative so as to not confuse his gate work with art — or Art. Ask him why he stopped doing the steam shows and the answers are varied. “I just got tired, working with heavy metal, I couldn’t do it physically anymore,” he says, attracting the ears of a few onlookers who now creep into the conversation circle. There’s also the family, says Goldstone, which he couldn’t support with his unendorsed artistic endeavors. “You’ve got to do everything in life with passion and vigor, and that’s what I did . . . until I had to stop,” he says. The curious onlookers are satisfied with this and meander away for a beer. Then Goldstone leans in closer and adds, “Truth is, I failed.”

Goldstone maintains some bitterness toward an L.A. art scene that never embraced — or even cared to know of — his little community. The love/hate relationship between Goldstone and the world of “high art,” as he calls it, was perhaps never a relationship — just one guy hating an easy-to-hate culture that he would have embraced if given the opportunity. “If MOCA had called me, sure, I would’ve talked to them,” he says. “I’d be stupid not to.” MOCA never called, and the hate (or was it lust?) that he once had for the art world has since dwindled into indifference.

In any case, Goldstone’s relationship with this cranky steamship is more satisfying to watch outside than in a gallery or museum. As he caresses her familiar limbs, she coos and shakes, spurting smoke and steam into the night. “C’mon, baby,” he says, with most of the crowd now gathered around the back end of the ship, watching the flames that lap out of the boiler’s small opening. Asking for more privacy with his partner, Goldstone suggests that we divert our collective gaze. “A watched pot never boils,” he says.

When the pressure is high enough, Goldstone opens the valve to the pistons. They undulate slowly at first, inducing the gears to break free of old rust. The now-empty seats in the ship rise with the stern and give way to a loud CRACK when it falls. “Get in, Jimmy,” says Goldstone to his youngest son, who declines inaudibly and returns to his chair. Three courageous fellows hop in instead but prove to be too much weight for the pistons, one of which turns out to be broken. Two engineers grab the gears and coax them along, more or less conceding a breakdown.

Goldstone urges the helpers to move into the cloud of steam. “Don’t they know art is about illusion?” he asks incredulously. “Hide yourself behind the fucking thing!”

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