Seven Degrees of Wally Berman

Chances are you’ve never heard of Wallace Berman, but you’ve probably heard of someone he hung out with. Art-world cognoscenti might know him for his quirky signature Verifax prints (an early form of photocopy) from the ’60s and ’70s, showing grids of the same shot of a hand holding a transistor radio, but with a different image — a psychedelic mushroom, a skeleton, a politician, a spiral nebula — superimposed on each one. Or they’ve seen his cryptic kabbalistic inscriptions of seemingly random Hebrew letters on scraps of stained paper, photographs, found rocks, the landscape, motorcycle helmets and what have you. But it is Semina for which he is best-remembered — the Beat-era DIY proto-zine that helped define and connect West Coast underground culture in nine issues published between 1955 and 1964. Not that well-remembered, mind you. Graphic-design guru Steven Heller’s otherwise excellent 2003 book, Merz to Émigré and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century, for instance, makes no mention of Berman or Semina, which was as remarkable for its innovative format — usually a quantity of different-sized unbound hand-printed pages assembled in a folder or envelope — as for the bohemian talent that contributed. In addition to Berman himself, these included Michael McClure, Charles Bukowski, Alexander Trocchi, Allen Ginsberg, John Altoon, William Burroughs, Philip Lamantia, Robert Duncan, Jess, Llyn Foulkes and Dean Stockwell. These short bursts of contemporary avant-garde poetry, prose, photography, collage and drawing were augmented by fragments lifted from various visionary precursors, from William Blake, W.B. Yeats and Lewis Carroll to Antonin Artaud, Jean Cocteau and Hermann Hesse, then mailed out to a couple of hundred kindred spirits. But their influence spread exponentially. Semina issue A large part of Berman’s non-celebrity is due to his refusal to participate in the art world after his first — and only — commercial solo show (at the legendary Ferus Gallery in 1957) was busted by the LAPD vice squad — the lewd material in question being the very first issue of Semina. But the entire movement in which he played such a pivotal role has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves. Exhibits like Lisa Phillips’ 1995 “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965” at the Whitney, Bruce Conner’s 2000 retrospective at the Walker (and then MOCA), and the recent spate of George Herms museum shows at the Norton Simon, the Crocker and the Santa Monica Museum of Art have released the androgynous psychedelic cowboys (and cowgirls) of the West from the shadow of the East Coast peintures in whose High Modernist dumpsters they dived.It’s been only four months since the closing of SMMOA’s ginchy Herms show, “Hot Set” (hand-picked by Ferus co-founder Walter Hopps, who died during the show’s run), and there’s already a flurry of local shows based on Herms’ influential mentor — Wallace Berman. While Berman has yet to receive the comprehensive retrospective so clearly needed, he is the subject of a rising tide of curatorial fascination. Patricia Faure Gallery improbably pairs Berman with the geometric minimalism of Tony DeLap, while Craig Krull draws from Berman’s sphere of influence with the surprisingly accomplished collages of Dean “The Boy With Green Hair” Stockwell, alongside late photo-alchemist Edmund Teske’s “duotone solarizations” (his retrospective was at the Getty last year) and documentation of fellow traveler Joe Goode’s recent, devastating studio fire. The Skirball Center, meanwhile, has a small show devoted to Semina reproductions, which would be more exciting if a full run of the originals weren’t in the very first vitrine of “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle,” a kaleidoscopic but surprisingly coherent show at SMMOA that collects artworks and ephemera from 50 of Berman’s closest friends.Derived jointly from the Semina roster and a mother lode of never-before-seen photographic portraits culled from the thousands of unprinted negatives in the artist’s estate — Berman was killed by a drunk driver on the eve of his 50th birthday in 1976 — “Semina Culture” provides a rich and detailed historical cross section of a fascinating layer of American culture and a superabundance of cool art. Co-curated by Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna (both occasional Weekly contributors), “Semina Culture” casts a wide net and serves up a smorgasbord of old rubber boots and ripe red herrings — beautiful if you have eyes to see, and deeply compelling if you’re looking for a few good stories.Take Cameron, for example, a.k.a. Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel, cover girl for Semina 1 and author of the specific line drawing (a peyote vision in the doggy style) that sent the LAPD into such a tizzy. Cameron is known to aficionados of arcane Angeleno lore as the elemental vessel for Jet Propulsion Lab founder Jack Parsons and pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard’s “Babalon Working” — an attempt to spawn a “moonchild” or apocalyptic “Scarlet Woman” to usher in a global empire based on the magickal principles of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema. You know. After Ron fucked off with Parsons’ wife, Betty, and 10 large of his petty cash, Jack married Cameron before dying in a mysterious chemical explosion in his garage in 1952. Jay DeFeo's 707 Scott Street, San Francisco (1959) That’s a great story, but you don’t need to know any of it to appreciate the sampling of Cameron’s visual art on display in “Semina Culture” — sinewy figurative works including the original “peyote” drawing. Nor do you need to know the story behind Jay DeFeo’s monumentally thick 1-ton painting, The Rose, to savor the peculiarly gnarly studio stool — encased in seven years’ worth of the same white paint — she gave to Bruce Conner (whose seven-minute black-and-white documentary on the painting’s eventual removal from DeFeo’s San Francisco studio — at the behest of Walter Hopps — is included in a night of related screenings at American Cinematheque). This sort of intricate overlapping of personal and art-historical melodramas underlies “Semina Culture” like a fungal mycelium, and is to some extent responsible for the exhibit’s success. Unraveling every last rhizomatic strain of these tangled histories is impossible. Text panels provide some context; the excellent catalog quite a bit more. The show is laid out with a simple recipe: a newly printed Berman photo portrait of the artist or poet in question, followed by a selection of their work. Some, like Henry Miller, Dennis Hopper, Toni “Oh Mickey You’re So Fine You’re So Fine You Blow My Mind Hey Mickey Hey Mickey” Basil, and a who’s who of has-been child actors, including Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Billy Gray and Bobby Driscoll, will be puzzlingly familiar to the most casual viewer. Art types will recognize Conner, DeFeo, Jess, Altoon, Joan Brown and many other luminaries. Literati will thrill at the inclusion of the West Coast Notebooks of Diane DiPrima, Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantras street posters and the teletype scroll manuscript of Kirby Doyle’s forgotten Beat novel Happiness Bastard.But nobody will get it all. Which means that, sooner or later, you allow yourself to give up, to surrender to the immediate gestalt of the collection and the pleasures of its individual components, secure that web upon web of meaning lies beneath every pregnant surface. As in Wallace Berman’s art. The Verifax radio collages — just one example of which is squeezed in here — coax and disrupt our hard-wired penchant for linear narrative, atomizing what we want to be a storyboard sequence into a timeless aggregate of moments, presented to us with the sole directive “Behold.” “Semina Culture” demonstrates materially how the same formula was manifested in Berman’s social life, infusing it with creativity and hidden layers of meaning, and making it an art-generating engine that churns on to this day. SEMINA CULTURE: Wallace Berman & His Circle | BERGAMOT STATION G1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through November 26


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