Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective

Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective

I saw the introduction of this exhibit on the SFMOMA newsletter, the photos they chose to show on both print and web didn’t impress me. Another realistic painter, I thought to myself, why not just get a camera?

We were in SFMOMA today so we checked out the show. Surprisingly, I fell in love with Bechtle’s paintings. There is something astonishingly beautiful in those canvases on the wall, and that beauty was completely lost in print or on a monitor. It was the quality of light in the Bay Area. It was what I always love about sunny days here. His paintings captured them so well. Astonishing. Even though his subject matters seemed so mundane: concrete drive ways, hilly but tree-less streets, rows after rows of two-story houses with featureless bay windows. The light fell onto them made them shine, almost translucent. Those clean and crisp light of Northern California, fluid, sparklingly alive, passed from frame to frame, illuminating the simple composition, captivating me, making me speechless.

When we walked out of the exhibition hall, Mi turned to me, “He is painting light.” Yes, that’s it. He is painting light. He is painting the essence of light, the happiness of light. Something above and beyond the reality could have been captured by a camera.

The earlier paintings were from Alameda, and the more recent ones are based largely on Potrero Hill district of SF.

We’ve been to this intersection quite often because there is a Muslim restaurant we liked called Old Mandarin about two blocks away. I have never seen sky like this there. But how i love that light!

Robert Bechtle
Vicente Avenue & 40th. Intersection
Oil on linen
48 x 69 inches

Here is another one that i really love.

Robert Bechtle
Twentieth Street-Early Sunday Morning
36/66 inches

Picture on a computer monitor doesn’t do justice to these paitings. You have to go and check it out in person! 🙂

Strawberry Morning

Strawberry season is here. I¡¯ve been tempted ever since I saw the huge box of them at COSTCO a couple of weeks ago. Knowing that half of them would go bad before Mi and I could finish them. I didn¡¯t buy it. Saturday at the supermarket, I couldn¡¯t resist any more and brought home a 16 oz box.

Thus came a strawberry morning to our little breakfast table. Strawberry pancake and strawberry with whipped cream. Yummy. The festive looking color brightened a morning with sun and clouds. The rain had ceased, temporarily.

Ever since Gui introduced me to the giant bag of pancake mixture sold at Costco, I¡¯ve been trying all kinds of fruits we had in a pancake. The experiments include:
– Banana and walnuts, good
– Banana and shredded coconut, yummy!
– Mango and shredded coconut. Not as spectacular as I had imagined. All mango flavor were lost in the pancake. 🙁
– Pear and shredded coconut, the flavor of pear was wonderful! But the fragrance of coconut is not as pronounced as with banana.
– Strawberry, lovely. Because the slightly sore taste of a strawberry, the pancake goes really well with some whipped cream.

Baked some cookies on Sunday afternoon. It was the kind that everyone¡ªMom, Gui, and Mi¡ªseems to like the best among all my baking experimentations. In the cookie book, it is called ¡°Mexican Almond Cookie¡±. I¡¯ve been making it with some of my alterations, with Walnut instead of Almond, and not as sweet. Here is my recipe.

Mexican Almond Cookie without Almond

– all purpose flour 1 cup
– confection sugar ¾ cup (original recipe calls for 1 and ½ cup)
– chopped walnut ¾ cup (original recipe calls for ½ cup of finely chopped almond)
– one pinch of salt
-1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
-4 oz butter, diced at room temperature (I usually put a little more butter, make it 5 oz)
-pine nuts around ¼ cup depends on personal preference
-cookie cutter that is approx. the size of a drink bottle cap
(Original recipe also calls for more confection sugar for dusting after the cookie has been cooked. But I skipped that)

1. preheat the oven at 350F
2. mix flour, sugar, salt with a fork, then mix in the walnuts, and vanilla extract
3. use your hand to work diced butter into the flour mixture, until you get a ball shaped, well mixed dough.
4. The recipe then asked you to roll the dough into a thin layer, roughly ¼ inch thick, and started cutting it into round cookie shape. I found it better to make it into a small round cookie rather than a large one. Because the cookie came out to be very brittle, with a big cookie, you get cookie crumbs everywhere. So I made them into bite sized. Also, I found it easier to follow mom¡¯s example of making dumpling skins. First to divide the dough into roughly 3 or 4 portions, roll each into a thin cylindrical shape, with the diameter of 1 inch, then slice the cylinder into ¼ inch pieces, and place each piece onto the cookie sheet.
5. press pine nuts onto the little cookies sat on the cookie sheet. I usually press in one or two nuts per cookie depends on the size. The goal is not to break up the cookie. This step is absolutely optional. Mi is obsessed with pine nuts. So all my cookies have them. 🙂
6. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or till it browned. Mi liked it a little over cooked so it is more crispy. Usually it is done when you could smell the lovely cookie smell. 🙂
7. Take it out of the oven and let it cool down. Otherwise it is too soft to handle.

The Scent of the Nile

Last night was a perfect evening. Met up with friends for yoga after work. The substitute teacher was incredibly relaxed. If not for her constant soft talks, I would have fell asleep half way. Then everyone piled into the Malaysia Restaurant nearby that we always go after yoga. Feasted on fresh clam, crispy roti, satayed meat, morning glory, and curry chicken. Driving home in the perfumed night air, we were once again mystified by the glory of beautiful March in California. It felt like summer.

Arrived at our apartment, we found the newest issue of The New Yorker magazine has just arrived. I was delighted. The best reading material for a bubble bath. Cucumber and Green Tea scented bubble bath from Bath and Body Works was by far my favorite. It blended in so well with an early summer night¡¯s breeze. The New Yorker turned out to be a ¡°Style Issue¡± and was full of wonderful articles on fashion, architecture, and ¡­drum rolls¡­PERFUME! 🙂

Needless to say, I went straight to the article on ¡°The Scent of the Nile¡±. The story of Jean-Claude Ellena, Hermes newest chief perfumer, creates a new perfume based on his inspiration from a trip up the Niles.

Almost all of us had tried to smell a perfume on those testing papers in the store. Here is what the perfumers had to say about that!

The great Guerlain perfumes¡ªAim¨¦ Guerlain created the first, Jicky, in 1889¡ªwere all tested exclusively on human skin, never on paper. They were expressly built to blossom and fade, over time, on the body. Today¡¯s customers, however, don¡¯t want five fragrances on their body at the same time; they prefer to sample perfumes on paper strips. As a result, most perfumes today are constructed to smell good, for a few seconds, on a paper strip¡ªwhich is a perversion, unless you happen to be made of paper. Indeed, many of today¡¯s perfumes don¡¯t last (Kenneth Cole¡¯s Black vanishes as quickly as a picked green mango), and they often clash with the body¡¯s natural smells.

And how about that “lingering” smell of a scent? We seemed to only associate that phenomenon with beauty from the past, as if they only existed in black and white movies.

Ellena¡¯s best-known fragrances are Eau Parfum¨¦e au Th¨¦ Vert, for Bulgari, and First, for Van Cleef & Arpels. Just before joining Herm¨¨s, he had created L¡¯Eau d¡¯Hiver for Fr¨¦d¨¦ric Malle¡¯s ¨¦lite collection, Éditions de Parfums. … On the other hand, he said admiringly, the Guerlain scent had a marvellous sillage¡ªthe olfactory wake that trails behind a wearer of perfume. Someone once defined sillage to me, rather metaphysically, as the sense of a person being present in the room after she has left. Creating a sillage that is potent but not overpowering is tricky. With L¡¯Eau d¡¯Hiver, Ellena said, he wanted to pay homage to the Guerlain scent¡¯s sillage¡ª¡°but in enlightened form.¡± He selected elements from Apr¨¨s l¡¯Ond¨¦e that were ¡°soft, comfortable, light.¡± One of these was the natural essence of hay. He took some aub¨¦pine, an olfactory blend of finger paint and the wax used to clean linoleum floors, and added it to methyl ionone, a synthetic whose smell suggests iris. He then added a few more ingredients, including a natural distillation of honey. It took him two years to perfect his formula, which in the end contained twenty ingredients¡ªvery few, for a perfume. L¡¯Eau d¡¯Hiver smells, delightfully, of ground white pepper and cold seawater, with a touch of fresh crab. And it has a sillage worthy of Guerlain.

Ever since Fang Zhou guided me into the world of scent, i have been fascinated by the beauty of this particular chemistry.

In my presence, Ellena once dipped a touche into a molecule called isobutyl phenal acetate, which has a purely chemical smell, and another touche into vanillin, a synthetic version of vanilla. He placed the two paper strips together, waved them, and chocolate appeared in the air. ¡°My m¨¦tier is to find shortcuts to express as strongly as possible a smell,¡± he explained. ¡°For chocolate, nature uses eight hundred molecules. I use two.¡± He handed me four touches¡ªvanillin plus the natural essences of cinnamon, orange, and lime. The combined smell was a precise simulation of Coca-Cola. ¡°With me, one plus one equals three,¡± Ellena said. ¡°When I add two things, you get much more than two things.¡±

And this paragraph explained why perfume should be categorized as art! 🙂

Ellena is proud to be an illusionist. ¡°Picasso said, ¡®Art is a lie that tells the truth,¡¯¡± he told me. ¡°That¡¯s perfume for me. I lie. I create an illusion that is actually stronger than reality. Sketch a tree: it¡¯s completely false, yet everyone understands it.¡± The point of Un Jardin sur le Nil, he said, was not to reproduce the scent of a green mango but, rather, to create a fantasy version of green mango.

Fascinated? Good, now you can go read the article at its entirety. You won’t regret it. It is a lovely read, pure joy. 🙂
THE SCENT OF THE NILE, Jean-Claude Ellena creates a new perfume. By CHANDLER BURR. The New Yorker, Issue of 2005-03-14.

And here is a user’s review of the perfum: Un Jardin sur le Nil.

And an old article from the issue of 1930-05-03 on another perfumer from Paris: Perfume and Politics

Lang Lang and China Philharmonic Orchestra

On the first Saturday of 2005, we went to SF Symphony¡¯s box office to order tickets of Lang Lang with China Philharmonic Orchestra concert, which was scheduled for March 6th. ¡°Ah, Lang Lang! Everyone wants to see Lang Lang!¡± The high spirited gentleman working behind the box office window exclaimed. He checked on his computer and informed us that all tickets on the left side of the stage had been sold out. But he got us some good tickets on 1st Tier on the right side of the stage.

Lang Lang the piano Prodigy. Born and raised in northern China, Lang Lang started taking piano lesson when he was 2, went on stage and won his first award at the age of 5, moved to Beijing to study at the age of 8, moved further to the US at the age of 15. By chance, he was the replacement for Andre Watts in an international music festival held in Chicago. That performance of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto set his stardom in motion. The audience leaped to their feet at the end, Lang Lang, the star, started its joyful ascend. That year, he was 17.

Program of March 6th at SF Symphony:

-Rimsky-Korsakov Overture to The Tsar’s Bride
-Hua Yanjun/A’bing Moon Reflected on the Second Fountain
-Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

-Ye Xiaogang Das Lied von der Erde, soprano Luwa Ke
-Bart¨®k Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin

China Philharmonic Orchestra was a pleasant surprise. I was thoroughly impressed. Majority of the 120 musicians looked to be in their twenties. The sound they conjured up was beautiful, let it be the exciting sequence of The Tsar’s Bride or the moody sorrow from ¡°Moon Reflection¡±. The latter touched me deeply. Not sure whether it was due to the high contrast of such eastern sound inside such western settings, my tears were out of control throughout the entire piece.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was the showpiece for Lang Lang. But often I found myself enjoying the orchestra just as much. At the very end, when the entire orchestra morphed into one entity of trembling sound, the slightly metal quality of the music transformed the orchestra into one giant leaf, trembled against the powerful rain storm of Lang Lang¡¯s piano. What joy that was! My heart leaped! I was beyond myself.

The second half of the concert was rather modern. I¡¯m in general remaining skeptical toward modern arts, modern classical music included. Too many of them sounded borderline noise to me. But the two pieces chosen by this orchestra turned out to be mildly enjoyable.

Ye Xiaogang¡¯s Das Lied von der Erde had the red-clad Luwa Ke sang ancient Chinese poems from Tang Dynasty, the orchestra contributed occasionally Peking Opera style drum and percussion sound. I was especially fond of the last two pieces. With its relatively quieter sound affect and the creative use of percussion instrument to simulate the bell and drum of a Chinese temple. I was captivated when the sound of a lone Luo slowly died down, and the light pattering of a large drum slowly fading away. That unique sound of solitude so typical of an Asian temple was perfectly recreated on stage. Fascinating.

Someone said on the Chinese BBS that the reason of choosing ¡°The Miraculous Mandarin¡± was to show off this young Orchestra¡¯s excellent techniques. Maybe she was right. But I truly enjoyed the piece. In Mi¡¯s words, it was very satisfying to watch everyone on stage working so hard throughout the entire piece. What more can an audience ask for?

Here are more photos from the night at symphony.

The Chronicle Review: China Philharmonic Orchestra makes S.F. debut with Lang Lang, by Allan Ulrich, March 8, 2005
Lang Lang’s Official website
CBS 60 minutes interviewing Lang Lang

Voltaire’s Garden

Something amazing happened last night. After dinner, I spent the evening reading instead of surfing the net. 🙂 Came upon a fascinating article in the newest New Yorker magazine on ¡°VOLTAIRE¡¯S GARDEN¡±, by Adam Gopnik. The article gave a good mini-biography on Voltaire, and traced his development as a liberal advocate in the political scene.

A few excerpts that I liked.

“…after renting the villa, he started shopping like Martha Stewart newly freed from prison.”

“..Partly it must have been that he so much enjoyed vexing stupid powerful people that he kept forgetting that stupid people who had gained power were never stupid about threats to their power. Each time he poked the silly tiger and the tiger clawed back, he was genuinely shocked. …By inflating his ego to immense proportions, he made it a shelter for the helpless.”

“It is not so much the establishment of a garden but the ownership of a gate that moves people from liking a society based on favors to one based on rights.”

(¡°Enlightened times will only enlighten a small number of honest men,¡± he wrote. ¡°The common people will always be fanatical.¡±)

¡°All discord harmony not understood; / All partial evil, universal good.¡± –Leibniz

It seems hard only from the narrow point of view of the pig. ¡°Those who have suggested that everything is good have spoken obtusely,¡± Pangloss explains, in Raffel¡¯s rendering. ¡°What they should have said is that everything is for the best.¡±

“It is the flight from failed optimism into faith that he fears.”

¡°We must cultivate our garden,¡± is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action.