Damn Those Yetis

Photo by Jack GouldIt seems that in addition to having a firm grasp on environmental issues, Leonardo DiCaprio knows a thing or two about art.

Stop laughing! I'm serious!

The skinny Boy Wonder turned in an impressive interview with President Bill Clinton in regards to Earth Day. We didn't hear it because ABC killed the interview when broadcast journalists—broadcast fucking journalists!—were deemed more suitable to the task of asking tough questions. But a transcript of the kiboshed interview showed an articulate and detail-oriented DiCaprio asking follow-ups, even! And now? The Li'l Millionaire has provided the major support for an exhibit at Laguna Art Museum that has turned out to be one of the most whacked, bizarre and ultimately mind-expanding shows I've seen in Southern California. Do you think Leo made it to the opening? I wish I'd been there!


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So what piqued DiCaprio's—and therefore, everyone's—interest? The self-described genius of dead Pole Stanislav Szukalski in "Struggle." The retrospective spans most of his 93 years (he died in 1987) except, of course, for what was destroyed by the Nazis. Goddamn those Nazis! Despite smashing Szukalski's work in the '30s, the Nazis didn't get their hands on 14,000 other drawings. And then, of course, there's the sculpture.

I don't care much for sculpture generally; what we usually see in Southern California—Minimalism along the lines of Tony DeLap's bent planks or the "public art" that lines the drives to Laguna's upscale housing gulags—leaves me colder than Laura Bush on a hot Austin night. I'm not saying such work is bad, just pointless and ugly. It's all a matter of one's personal preferences.

But at the Laguna Art Museum, Szukalski's large bronze busts—of subjects like An Irishman, Judasand My Blacksmith Father—are as powerful and overbearing as a faith healing. Some of his sculptures are classical yet bent, such as his diorama hollowed out like a Faberg egg and holding a Pieta (Mary holding her dead son, Jesus, after he's taken from the cross). According to Szukalski, the recessed scene represents a mannish Mother France baring her breast for a nation (dead Jesus, hands contorted into death claws) decimated by Nazis but preparing to rise again. Judas, the traitor, is the son of a Yeti, who are a large part of Szukalski's outlandish cosmology—a cosmology that spans 39 volumes he wrote to depict our rise from the last Great Deluge, when we lived on Atlantis, which can be traced back to Easter Island. Goddamn those Yetis!

I can't even begin to summarize Szukalski's potent Weltanschauung—what he called Zermattism—but it has something to do with Poland being the center of the universe and Polish being the tongue on which all other modern languages are based (Easter Island again—and mermaids). When his views crashed into established scientific theory—linguists who base modern language on the Indo-European tree, for instance—he just disregarded it. That's balls.

But his mythology, though heavily represented here, is beside the fact. In the end, it isn't the lovely illustrations of Krak and the Salt Giants that stay with you: it's war's horrors seen firsthand and distilled through every bit of Szukalski's weird world-view.

Szukalski's works are an entrancing blend of classicism and the best of the 20th century. Some crayon portraits, such as A Centaur, look like statues transposed to two dimensions, the planes of the face of the helmeted man layered geometrically like a Braque made round and human. He is robust—or doughy, depending on your point of view—with a Tom Selleck mustache and features hammered from bronze. Complementing these are busts, some organic and some that seem modeled as 3-D versions of the drawings. They are statues of drawings of statues. They are not human, but futuristic masks.

Pages from Szukalski's scrapbook end the exhibit. They are filled with magazine cutouts in themes. Many are bikini ladies, some are bugs, and some are food. But despite his focus on the chicks, there is an almost complete dearth of women in the exhibit. There are two portraits—each lovely in the manner of a 1930s film-studio glamour shot—and Erotic Landscape, a colorful painting that has marbled thighs rising like mountain ridges beneath an Arizona sky and green shrubbery flowing like a river over the faceless woman's house-sized yoni. The rest are men. They are everywhere, muscled and strong, like Echo, whose thighs could crack walnuts and whose fingers are pointy like the scales on a Chinese dragon. Sometimes they are headless—also like Echo—but not in the manner of a classical statue that's been decapitated by marauding armies. Instead, their heads implode into their necks, leaving only unmarred shoulder blades that could hold up the world. Did I mention that Szukalski was freaky?

The statue for which the exhibit was named is a gnarled hand—all Szukalski's hands are gnarled—its fingers transformed into cawing-vulture maws. The thumb is both scavenger bird and a gun pointed back at the hand. It is a scene of such violent, morbid death, so pregnant with unrealized terror—it's easy to forget just how terrifying things were in the middle of this century. For all Szukalski's Electric Kool-Aid nutjobbery, what finally comes through is the stink of whole nations falling in love with totalitarianism, marching in lock step to Kurt Vonnegut's military-prison cell and George Orwell's barnyard. Death is far from us today, in Chechnya's steppes and Rwanda's killing fields. It might as well be on Mars. But half a century ago, it was right upon us. It's a lesson to remember as we head fearless into the brave new world.


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