Gallery, artists deal with headaches

— Only William S. Burroughs seemed untouched by the "insanity" of his exhibit's opening, a friend said.

It takes some nerve to deliberately mar a perfectly good painting, but according to artist Alison Van Pelt, her images of Williams S. Burroughs are better once they get a good thrashing.

"What I do is start with a classically constructed portrait on the canvas, then, basically, I destroy it," Van Pelt said.

Van Pelt, whose piece "William Burroughs" graces the cover of the "Ports of Entry" exhibition catalog, has a similar piece hanging in the show, "William S. Burroughs Paintings: 1987-1996," presented jointly by Santa Monica's Robert Berman and Track 16 galleries.

The painting, large, dark and done in oil, is the embodiment of Burroughs' Tangiers moniker -- "El Hombre Invisible" -- because you can only see the fleeting image from a distance.

However, at the opening, a couple of kids with big backpacks, a gallery no-no, smacked their bags into the $9,000 painting, leaving a series of small slashes toward the bottom of Van Pelt's creation.

"I can't believe it," Van Pelt said. "Why can't people be more careful? I think I can cover it up."

After the accident, gallery owner Robert Berman made sure such a misfortune wouldn't happen again by placing white theater tethers around the painting for the rest of the busy opening.

About the gallery

Berman, who has had galleries in and around Los Angeles for 15 years, settled into the trendy Bergamot Station in 1994. The station, once the hub for an ahead-of-its-time public trolley system in the 1940s, was rendered obsolete as the automobile came to dominate Southern California. The station reopened two years ago, and the fenced-in area is now occupied by more than 20 galleries.

The general recession in art sales, which has taken its toll for six years, according to locals, makes turnover common.

Berman represents artists such as Van Pelt and Bill Barminiski and also deals in secondary art. He said he did a show of Burroughs and Keith Haring collaborations in 1986 and welcomed the opportunity to hang another.

"William is one of the most important figures alive today," he said. "He is an American icon, a philosopher and an all-encompassing, total artist who we are lucky enough to have work from."

The day before the public opening, Berman hosted a walk through for Burroughs that brought Allen Ginsberg, John Giorno, Van Pelt, David Bradshaw and a throng of photographers, who shoved their way close to Burroughs as he dutifully signed an imposing stack of catalogs for the exhibit.

The catalog, called "concrete and buckshot," features one of the last texts written by longtime Burroughs friend Timothy Leary: "I love his no nonsense right for the jugular! Shot guns are so mean yet Burroughs turns them into toys."

Berman said the walk-through was supposed to be an intimate gathering, but it just didn't turn out that way.

"It was a bit overwhelming, and it became a bit of a circus," he said. "But despite all the attention and all the photographers, whenever I could get a word in edgewise, I had William's total attention. Most people, of any age, would have cracked. He not only maintained but enjoyed himself in all of that insanity."

Devoted fans

If the private walk-through was a circus, then the public reception was a zoo, with the prospective buyers rubbing shoulders with the terminally hip coastal crowd, who make gallery openings the main source for free drinks and finger food. They packed into the Beat Bar, set up in a back room of the gallery to witness campy reincarnations of poetry reading and a bicycle horn-blowing musical interlude by Carlos Fontana.

While perusing the exhibition price list, one fedora-clad young man walked up to a reporter and asked, "Is he here?"

"Who?"

"Burroughs, of course."

"No, he was here yesterday."

"OK, I am going to kill myself now."

And, in a wicked fulfillment of an enduring L.A. stereotype, the man working behind the Beat Bar kept telling patrons that he was going to start filming his movie in the next few weeks. Best line overheard: "I would introduce you, but, you know."

Berman, who was scurrying around making sure the reception kept running smoothly while meeting privately with people ready to buy, said he was pleased with the opening but more satisfied to be representing Burroughs.

"The lines in his paintings are very strong and pure in the same vein as the abstract expressionists -- and much of his art generates that type of brilliance," he said. "His work looks at you straight on and is completely coherent."

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