Viggo Mortensen Clicks with Photo L.A.

Source: Coagula Art Journal #67

© Coagula Art Journal.

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Viggo. The opening night benefit for PhotoLA was hosted? Maybe that's not the right word: brought to you by? Encouraged to attend by? Whatever the proper construction of a phrase to indicate the endorsement/sponsorship/participation of a celebrity in a non-profit fundraising event may be, actor/artist Viggo Mortensen was it for this year's soiree, proceeds to benefit the photography department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

There was a rather full parking lot, and a long line of cars waiting to get in; I joined the other cars sharking for street parking. A woman was walking away from the event with a bag, presumably with something photographic in it ...'are you parked nearby?' I asked as I rolled down my window. 'I'm close, that's okay.' she said. She thinks I'm offering her a ride, trying to pick her up, literally and figuratively. 'I'm just wondering about your parking space,' I said, 'but I'm happy to give you a ride if you want one.' She may have mumbled a reply; clearly she wasn't interested in pointing out her parking space, still sending off those 'you might hurt me' vibes. And even though I wouldn't hurt her, I couldn't blame her for her caution. After all, we were in Santa Monica. It wasn't apparent where she was parked, and I wasn't going to press ... so I continued down the block, looking for a place to make a U-turn. I was planning on putting the car in the lot and paying the $8 fee when I saw her approach a car. Not wanting to get too excited about a parking space, I made the U-turn, and waited patiently while she got in her car and drove off. I don't think she even realized it was me as I pulled into her vacant space.

Inside there was a serious crowd of people. More crowded than I'd remembered from years past, when I had once before attended an opening night of PhotoLA. Normally, I attend on a weekend day with my photo pal, Claudia Cunin, a photographer with an amazing sense of moment in the present, and in the past. But this year I scored the press pass, and was now mingling with the art world hoi paloi.

I stopped first at the cappucino machine. It was either that or the bar. But I was working; besides, I'd already had a few tequilas and a scotch before showing up. 'Have you served any celebrities?' I asked the cappucino man. 'No,' he said, not particularly interested, 'Are there any here?' 'Viggo Mortensen is supposed to be here.' A man standing behind me said, 'he's inside, with a crowd around him.' 'Thanks.'

Armed with a double cap I hit the floor, looking for Viggo, and anyone else who might be around. After a few minutes of strolling around, I saw my friend Janet Fitch, author of the best-selling novel, and popular film White Oleander.

We chatted for a bit and she introduced me to her friends, Enrique and his wife. Enrique Something Something, the artist, said his wife. I pretended to be impressed, and familiar with his work. He was very nice, and friendly. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with his work by name. Janet asked me what I was doing there, and I told her I was writing for Coagula and looking for Viggo Mortensen. Enrique said that Viggo had come to their Venice place awhile ago when it was for sale, and that they had talked about art. Enrique told me that all the paintings in one of Viggo's movies The Perfect Crime, the remake of the Hitchcock Dial M for Murder, were actually Viggo's Paintings. In the movie he plays a painter who is having an affair with Michael Douglas' wife, Gwyneth Paltrow.

I said to Enrique that I wanted to ask Viggo if he had ever considered exhibiting his art under a different name. Enrique thought that was an interesting question, and that he should exhibit under another name, an unknown name. We all chatted abit more about, and kids, and schools, and the various ways one meets and becomes friends with different people and off they went to talk to Stephen Cohen, who was the creator and presenter of PhotoLA. And I went off to look for Viggo.

I made my way around the large auditorium, looking down aisles, enjoying one of those times where my height is a serious advantage. In this case, it didn't really matter. I came around a corner in the back and found the small throng gathered around Viggo.

He seemed engaged in conversation with one of the gallery owners, unperturbed by the people who wanted an autograph, or to speak with him. It wasn't a mob scene, but there were some people who clearly enjoying the proximity to a star.

© Cyndi.
One woman held up a phone and took a picture. She was attempting to be somewhat discrete about it, standing back far enough to capture only the blurriest low resolution image. But then the floodgates seemed to open, and several more full-sized digital cameras and film cameras popped out, though without it turning into a complete paparazzi mob.

Shelly, who kindly called from Stephen Cohen gallery and left a message letting me know there would be a ticket for me at will call also expressly stated that no cameras were allowed inside. And in typical L.A. fashion everyone had ignored this edict; or the people at the front door were not terribly vigilant in enforcing the no-camera rule. Or it was only members of the press that were prohibited from bringing a camera to the event. In any event, not wanting to sully the reputation of Coagula Art Journal on my maiden outing as a writer, I complied and left all my cameras in the car.

Viggo's hair wasn't long like in his recent movie. He wore a gray blue buttoned-down shirt, and a blue and grayish striped sportcoat. Casual, not too fancy, definitely comfortable. Some people waited to speak with Viggo, or ask for autographs, or just stand in the glow that emanated from his spatial location. Others were busy trying to get past. It felt like a crowded subway platform during evening rush hour. A tall man leading his wife through the throng remarked over his shoulder to his wife 'let's get ahead of the Viggo crowd.'

Two girls each holding a drink up at eye level, attempting to secure them from spilling by errant elbow were saying, 'excuse me, excuse me,' as they inched their way along the wall where I was standing while waiting for the right moment to approach Viggo. I was scoping out who might be there with him, and struck up a conversation with the girls. 'That's so polite of you,' I said. I asked them if they were photographers. No they said. Alexandra, with her black hair in two casual pig tails holding her bright red drink said 'every girl goes through an amateur photography rite of passage. My mom passed a camera down to me, and I took a bunch of pictures.' 'Look.' said Michelle, peering over my shoulder, 'he's writing down what you say.' Is it like horses and ponies? I asked. Which comes first, the photography or the pony phase? They laughed. 'You have to see this picture by this guy Larry Fink,' Alexandra enthused. 'There's an old couple, she's pointing a gun at the camera, there's a plate of beanies and weenies on the table, it's at Christmas, it's great!' they enthused. I suggested they duck around the corner and check out Joel Peter-Witkin. 'There's another photographer, Susan M something, and she has these shots of 70's hookers. They're great.' That sounds cool, I said. Off they went, happily taking in the crowd, and the images, and preserving their drinks.

I looked over to Viggo, and noticed Will Farrell and his wife talking with Viggo. They were smiling and laughing, enjoying each other's company. I was too far away to hear any of the conversation, and of course now that the star quotient had doubled , there was an exponential rise in the sudden appearance of more cameras. Flashes ensued. The crowd grew. Will and his wife moved on.

I approached one of the people who were with Viggo and asked about asking Viggo a few questions. Coagula, eh? He seemed a pleasant guy, and the woman with him was being funny. They were laughing, giving me shit. You're going to do the celebrity thing right? I assured them I knew Viggo was a serious artist, and that I had a few questions about art, and photography, and PhotoLA. After a bit more light-hearted grief, I told them I had just come from work on Monster Garage, and that I reall was writing a piece for Coagula. They waited until Viggo was finished with his last conversation and then introduced me.

'Are all these people here because of your name?' I asked. 'Here,' he said reaching for my pen and pad of paper, 'They're here to see this guy,' and he wrote down a name I had not heard of before, Stefan Kirkeby. 'You have to go and find his photographs.'

What role does art play in our oversaturated visual culture? People are so visually literate these days, how do you break through the clutter? Is the photographic image important when it's so easily manipulated?' I sort of jammed a ridiculous number of thoughts and questions into a long run-on sentence. Viggo answered me calmly; he quoted Picasso, speaking about how creating art is keeping a diary. He said he was trying just to be here, that life is short. Then I asked him the question that Enrique thought was a good question. 'I don't know, should I have? Probably.' I asked him about acting and creating art, and whether in the former case it wasn't different because it was such a collaboration that ultimately was out of his control, whereas in the latter case he was the sole creator and arbiter ... he denied there was any significant difference to him as a creative person, 'They're both branches of the same tree. It's about being present, and communicating, and asking questions. It's the effort that matters,' said Viggo.

The crowd began to get a bit thick; Viggo was present and generous, as a participant in a conversation. And then it was time to go. He went off away from the crowded end of the row with his small group, and found a few minutes of solitude. I waited for the crowd to disperse, and asked Tim Doran, who was working the J.J. Brookings Gallery space in front of which Viggo and I had conversed, about the star thing. An elderly gentleman in a sportcoat, tie, and wire-rim glasses, Doran was neither impressed nor annoyed by it. 'I wouldn't know one from another, as long as they're a nice person and can carry on an intellectual conversation is all I care about.'

I went off to find Stefan's work. Several people working at other gallery booths had not heard of him. I continued wandering in the direction Viggo had indicated. I came upon a tall guy in a red and white pinstriped button-down shirt with curly hair and what a romance novelist might describe as smiling eyes. I caught his name on this name tag, and introduced myself. I asked him if he knew Viggo. He said he didn't, but when Viggo was walking past, he spoke to him in Danish, which happened to be his background as well as Viggo's, and that he, Stefan, then showed Viggo his work.

Stefan's work he was exhibiting at PhotoLA was a new series of abstract nudes, more shape, shadow, and composition rather than anything discernible as a part of a human being. They were ethereal black and whites, shot with a Hasselblad. Stefan said all the models want to look beautiful and smell beautiful, and he tells them it's not going to matter. He talked about the Hatch Gallery where he had had a show years ago that was well-reviewed in Coagula. He was happy that Viggo had spoken highly of his work, but he wasn't exactly in awe or elated by the news. Viggo's generosity had led me to find Stefan, and as an expression of artistic admiration, I found it generous and engaging, and lacking in apparent outward ego.

I said goodbye to Stefan, and with the few remaining moments wandered into the back corner of PhotoLA, away from the main room, scanning the imagery in the booths, now that I had accomplished my primary goal of finding and speaking with Viggo, and fulfilling the quest I was sent to complete by Viggo.

In the far corner was the Wendy Cooper Gallery from Madison Wisconsin, and Wendy showed me several images, and was friendly and open. She said she represents painters and photographers, and felt it was worth the effort and expense to journey to LA to bring some of her favorite clients into a city and an environment where they could be seen and sold. One painter/photographer takes pictures of mushrooms in the wild that she's painted. Pretty, textural, but kind of one note, like Cindy Sherman.

As they dimmed the lights, and made repeated yet polite announcements attempting to shoo the photography lovers out of the hall for the 9 PM closing time, I ran into Claudia Kunin and Janet Fitch. We wandered out into the entry hall area and found Claudia's piece, which I hadn't seen on the way in, though her dealer Michael Dawson had told me it was up. A very prominent position for one of the images in her current Ghost Stories series based on daguerreotypes. We said our good byes and I headed for the door.

I walked by a group of young artistic-looking types. 'Why don't we go back to the gallery and drink?' one asked. 'There's like two cases of vodka that have been there for, like years.' That sounded like fun, I thought, as I hit the door.

Outside the streets were quiet. There was no one lurking to snag my space, no one to frighten me, or for me to frighten. I pulled a U-turn and headed back to Hollywood.
Last edited: 29 June 2006 14:33:57
© Coagula Art Journal.