Photo by Ted Soqui
THE WINDOWS OF PAINTER TU-2’S BACHELOR APARTMENT overlook Echo Park Lake, although most of the glass is covered to keep the place a cool, dark studio. Few artists have been so shaped by history as this Taiwanese expat: When Tu-2’s father died, the promising 13-year-old painter had to abandon art to support his family. His martial-arts expertise would later bring him into Chiang Kai-shek’s elite detachment of army bodyguards. Like many Taiwanese, the young Tu-2 worshipped Chiang and accepted the paranoid state propaganda that “Mao is coming.” Soon after the generalissimo’s death, however, Tu-2, now a university history student, found himself poring over restricted records that revealed the corruption of Chiang’s entourage and government. He was shattered by his discoveries, as well as by the high-pressure time he’d spent under constant surveillance while a bodyguard. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Tu-2 — a nickname derived from a popular movie comedy — returned to painting, which has allowed him to confront the authority figures that dominated his life: father, Chiang and Mao. Tu-2’s “Maology” series, which showed at Brand Library a few years back, presented the dictator in a declension of iconic moods that ranged from the comic (a feline Meow Meow Mao) to the cosmic (I Ching Mao) to the topical (Gulf War Mao). “Mao was always present in my life, like a ghost,” Tu-2 says. Even a newer series, dealing with his own family, depicts members who are separated by a spectral void shaped like Mao. These portraits are the result of a painstaking process in which Tu-2 dipped tiny wooden Chinese signature seals and his fingerprints in paint to form images of his parents and siblings. Although Tu-2 spends much time in meditation, he also practices his martial-arts kicks by bouncing a tennis ball against a wall of his 1920s apartment complex. “A wall is really a mirror,” he says. “What you kick against it always comes back to you.”
(Photo by Max S. Gerber)
IF THE DEVIL MADE A PLANT, it would be a cycad. Prickly. Armed to the teeth with spikes and spines. Every part of it poisonous. Botanist Loran Whitelock points to a low-lying, blue-gray bush. “Encephalartos horridus,” he says, “aptly named. You wouldn’t want to land in a bunch of these.” Whitelock is the proprietor of Cycad Gardens, a one-and-a-half-acre lot tucked into a residential neighborhood in Eagle Rock. He is soft-spoken. Restrained. A gentle, lumbering fellow in love with a vicious plant. Whitelock’s hillside garden is dense with the stuff. Cycads stab us in the arms. Thwack! The neck. Thwack-thwack! Note his hands, dotted with bruises and fresh gashes. Then rack up the numbers: Whitelock is 73 now, but met his first cycad on a hike when he was 20. His garden is 40 years old. Which is nothing when you consider that some of the plants are hundreds of years old. Which is also nothing since, as a species, cycads date to the Jurassic period. “I love their antiquity,” say Whitelock, who has written a book, The Cycads (Timber Press). He is at once a man reverent of time and at war with it. In the wild, all cycads are endangered. Every day, Whitelock prunes, inspects, rakes, weeds, pollinates, catalogs, scuttles up and down the steep brick pathways, engaged in the steady, unrelenting work of preservation. Defended though the garden may be, occasionally plant thieves penetrate it. “It’s not so much stealing a plant as stealing its history,” Whitelock sighs. “See that one? It weighs 120 pounds. It took me seven hours to dig it out of a gorge in South Africa. I lugged it up the side of a mountain and drove it 300 miles over dirt roads. Whenever it’d fall, I’d put my body between the boulders and the cycad to cushion it.” Love hurts.