January 16, 2019

Making Sense of My Latest Trip

Barrio del Carmen

That does it for another visit to Valencia. It was only a few weeks this time, and over the very abnormal Christmas period, but since I've been before and know the place, dropping in and out over the years has made it like visiting an old friend. I like to know what's changed and what's remained the same, both for better and worse.

Everyone knows the story of the frog that stayed in the pot while the temperature turned up. It's privileged to be able to travel but it does break you out of the sense that home is the same everywhere. And the more you purge the bromides of the tourist industry from your thinking, the more eye opening it can be.

In Valencia, as anywhere, some knowledge of the local tongue and an effort to read the press or graffiti goes a huge way. Typically, tourists think cafés, beaches, and Calatrava's fashion-magazine architecture, as if the place had no locals. But dig a little and Valencians will talk instead about the rise of Ciudadanos and Vox, two right-wing populist parties. Or they will talk about changes the progressive mayor is bringing in. The 17.5% unemployment rate. Even all the persimmons that had to be dumped this year because there weren't enough buyers for them.

L'Horta, a mishmash of city and country.

A Race

I like to run. (Correction: running is a natural anti-depressant). I sign up for a race here and there to keep my sights set on a goal, otherwise I get demotivated and stop.

I ran one 15k "carrera popular" while we were away. It was in the mountains of Sot de Ferrer, a small town near Valencia. I paid 10 euros and signed up online a few days before the race. During the race, in the middle of the mountains, farmers greeted us with tables of figs, bananas, and water. When we finished there was beer, oranges, and pastries from a local bakery. We were given a slick long-sleeved shirt and bag of swag, and told where the showers were. The only advertising I could find was for the city hall, provincial government, and the local running club which had organized the race. The event was held on a Sunday morning and most of the town was out to watch, though no one cheered as if we were heroes, I mean, just running around in a circle and all.

Contrast this with a half-marathon I ran in Irvine, California last year. That sucker cost $85 and I had to sign up six months in advance or the price would've been higher. It was an "out and back," multiple times around a kind of flower formation, saving on how many streets they had to cut, and hence the cost of police and security. Corporate messaging and flags were everywhere. We started, of course, with the national anthem. Along the way we got Gatorade, one of the sponsors. Everyone was happy, to be sure, but in the forced way Americans are expected to be.

You know, just saying.


I sometimes joke that when farmers or manufacturers export internationally, they give their best goods to Europe and the leftovers to the U.S., figuring that Americans don't know better anyway. How else is it that you go to a standard supermarket, not a boutique or fancy place, and get larger, fresher, cheaper produce from places like Chile or Peru? How is it that you go to a dollar store, a "todo cien," and the pads of paper are more durable, the screws stronger, and the soap more concentrated?

We have a favourite fruit and vegetable stall we frequent in the Mercat de Russafa. The dudes that run it, Javi and José, work like dogs, waking up at the crack of dawn everyday to make sure they're fully stocked. They spend their day running deliveries on foot in the area (not everyone has an elevator in their building, so it's a lot of climbing with heavy bags) and making sure their largely elderly clients get their day's onion or two.

When we go, it's always a fight. Everything is as fresh and cheap as possible, but no matter how much we insist on this fruit or that, and no matter how long the line of people waiting behind us is, they won't put anything in our trolley that doesn't pass their personal quality inspection.

"No, you don't want that one. It's not ripe inside. I won't sell it to you."

"It's a damn mandarin! Throw it in already."

"I'm telling you, take this one instead. Here, I'll open it up and show you."

"No, no, fine. You don't have to open it. Have it your way. Now, a kilo of those grapes."

"Not those ones. They aren't the best I have..."

We spend a half an hour like this and in the end, our trolley teeming, our bill comes to something like 15 euros. And they're apologetic about giving it to us, such a large bill. 


At one point in my twenties, my childhood dentist decided I was big and tough enough to drill a cavity without anesthesia. And ever since then I've been terrified of the dentist and avoid visiting unless I absolutely need to.

Well, it just so happened I needed to in Valencia. "I know a guy who's trustworthy, give him a try," says my spouse. "He's a real no-BS guy." Gallardo is his name.

It's been a few years and so even the cleaning I don't expect to run smoothly. But it's fine, thorough. The dental assistant checks in with me repeatedly. They find a damn cavity in between two molars where I've been able to feel with my tongue that the filling has shifted and chipped. So I'm back a few days later getting it drilled. And really drilled—there was some concern the nerve could've been impacted, in which case I would've been in brutal pain once the freezing thawed and the tooth could've even possibly died. Gracias a Dios, that didn't come to pass.

In addition to this, we wanted a second opinion about our daughter's teeth. A dentist in California had said she had a cavity and needed drilling, and even suggested we cover her teeth with some sort of plastic liner to prevent more cavities. "It's standard now with children," she explained. "With all the candy they eat."

So here's the thing. Two solid cleanings, me and my spouse, a fairly involved operation on my molars, and an inspection of our kid's teeth. I was expecting to break the bank, and we don't have dental coverage in Spain. But the cleaning came to a very reasonable 60 euros apiece and my operation, 80. Gallardo said that if our kid was his, he wouldn't do anything. "It's a spot on the enamel, not a cavity. Get it looked at again in six months but it should be fine if she keeps brushing. As for the plastic liner, no, it can make things worse. We won't do that crap here."


It used to be that flying the Spanish flag in Valencia was tantamount to giving the Nazi salute. The only place I used to see it was in military installations. Of course, people flew the Valencian flag and if you happened to get stuck in a Catalan nationalist rally, you'd see a sea of red and yellow stripes. But the Spanish flag wore out its lifespan with Franco. Sadly, that's now changed with all the business in Catalonia and the turn to populism in the world. On balconies, in small businesses, even on the sides of farm buildings in the country you see the "rojigualda."

It was similar in London when I lived there over the 2002 World Cup. Beckham was all the rage and many a young man wore the hairstyle. They put away the Union Jack and cracked out the flag of England for the first time since the great old days of the empire, waving it furiously all over the City.

Thankfully in Valencia, the mayor, Joan Ribó, is a progressive type and has tempered some of the patriotism with reminders of Valencia's past. In one square we found a plaque commemorating a certain Margarida Borràs, who had been executed in 1460 for their "gender identity." Similarly, we found signs pointing out where residents, in parts town developers would love to demolish and replace with hotels, had been evicted from their homes by the previous mayor.

The port.


It was impossible not to notice how many bike lanes had been put in, and how many people were now cycling, and the calming effect this has had on traffic. I used to cycle in Valencia, but it was rough, no car expected a cyclist and they rarely ceded the way or noticed you were there. Now every driver is on high alert. They stop at crosswalks and travel at half the speeds they used to.

Some streets used to be unpassable with cars parked in any place there was space: up curbs, on the sidewalk, in traffic islands. People would leave their clutches off and double and triple park in rows, so you had to get out and play Tetris with four or five vehicles before you could get out of certain squeezes. Now, lines have been painted and the police simply ticket, problem solved.

People Everywhere

You might think it was the siesta, good food, or even opposition to Thatcher's line, "there's no such thing as society...[only] individual men and women" that we appreciate most about Valencia. But it's something else. It's the thriving downtown, the markets and small shops, the kiosks that still sell something called newspapers, as in actual paper. It's all these people walking, so much the city has had to pedestrianize large swaths. It's the aesthetic care that's been put into the city hall, shining as something important and worth visiting, not just another dreary corporate office. It's the libraries and museums, full. Fully operational public transit, even on Sundays. And how surprising it is how infrequently the right-wing brings up the question of taxation, as if that's a North American perversion, not a native feature of their movement.

The traditional San Silvestre, a 5k walk/run to cap off the year.

It's urban density, in a phrase, that bogeyman of lumberjacks and prairie farmers who've wimped out and moved to cities, and endeavoured to recreate what they fled from in the first place. And it's accepting the human company, shrugging off the annoyances, being graceful about it. Learning, even, to revel in it.

December 12, 2018

Together (No. 18)

Acrylic on birch panel, 48" x 36"

Here's number 18 of my series "Together," where I explore how it is to live in the public square in close proximity to others. I didn't get a chance to show it around much before it sold but I was told it's very east coast, perhaps because west coasters, at least southern Californians, are almost always in cars when outdoors, or if not that in spacious parks.

For me it has Jane Jacobs written all over it.

One of the technical things I'm doing with this series is restricting myself to a limited palette of CMYK. Frank Gehry, the architect, said in an interview I once caught on the radio that the only commission he ever screwed up was one where the client gave him complete freedom to do as he pleased. Not just in art but in public (and in families, communities, and relationships of all sorts) the cards are generally dealt by others, by reality, and the trick is not to flee from or deny the situation - nor accept it wholeheartedly either - but find ways to work within the box in the most gracious ways possible.

In politics, it seems, you know what you're dealing with when the teleprompters break. In comedy, the hecklers make the comedian. Event planners pull it off even in the rain.

It's about being rubber and a dandelion at the same time. Maybe a rubber dandelion.

For this and other of my latest works, mosey on over to www.ivanostocco.com.

October 30, 2018

Chicago "L"

Mixed media on birch panel, 48" x 36"
I was in Chicago for the first time this summer. It was only a few days but the downtown, and especially the roaring, steely subway, called the "L," really made an impression coming from the sea of highways known as L.A. All the pedestrians out and about in what was obviously the nicest windchill-free weather of the year, amid posters calling for Trump's ruination, had me singing, and thinking art.

I took a bunch of shots, sketched, and even grabbed some bits of this and that I could use for collage, and finally, months later, got around to making this.

It was supposed to flow out in a nice gentle breeze but every time I say that I get mired in all kinds of sweaty, unessential details and the work turns out more tentative and laboured than I want. I think it still has charm, especially when viewed in the flesh, but I've been telling myself for a while I really gotta quit the Rococo, work on my design essence, and pare it down.

For more like this, check out www.ivanostocco.com.

October 11, 2018

And freedom devolved into excess

Mixed media on canvas, 90" x 60"
I was at an art show a few weeks ago and got to watch, over the course of four days, a muralist cover a wall from start to finish. The section he worked on was probably 12' x 40' and while he had everything worked out and his approach was very graphical, it was impressive to watch the way he knocked out the piece.

I managed to sell a little work of my own and as I'm wont to do, I put some of the cash right away into new materials just as soon as I was back home. The first of the supplies was a big piece of canvas and a pile of wood to make stretcher bars of a sort I could disassemble, fold, and transport in my relatively compact Mazda5.

I've been on a bird kick I don't quite understand and here's the work I managed to produce. It's a smothering panoply of cute little symbols of freedom, flapping about in every which direction over my typical urban backdrop. It's reminiscent, I think, of Hitchcock's The Birds, supposedly based on the Greek myth of the Furies, the female deities of vengeance. I like that connection given all the Kavanaugh BS and #MeToo in the news these days.

In real life rather than shrunken down on a screen in front of you, the painting's larger scale pulls you into its world more than you might expect, a bit like a stage set. Actually, it's a little eerie to stand beside, but that's a quality that appeals to me.

Anyway, I liked working this large so much that I'd like to do more, just need to think how not just in a material sense but also a conceptual one, because up-scaling does shift how you think about what to depict and why. On that point, more to come shortly.

Hope it's a great week!

For this and work like it, visit www.ivanostocco.com.

September 24, 2018


24" x 48", mixed media on birch panel
What to say about this one, except that the image was somehow etched in my head before I even started?

There are these weird half-vintage, half-prepubescent-teen bikes that Californians love.[1] They look good and signal the right message about fashion,[2] but they're clunky, heavy, with long handlebars and gummy tires. You normally find a dude with a beard and the most haute streetwear cutting wide arcs from side to side on one.

Then too there's that yearning to be out in nature while surrounded by concrete and advertising. I don't share the romantic stuff about being at one with the cruel phenomenon we call Mother Nature, but I do think a re-appreciation of wildlife, the source of our food ultimately, and everything else could go a long way to repairing some of the damage we've done to the environment.[3]

The painting was inspired by somewhere I happened to pass through in South-Central, looking for some sort of heart to L.A.


[1] Robert Pogue Harrison, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age (2014).
[2] Nidesh Lawtoo, The Phantom of the Ego: Modernism and the Mimetic Unconscious (2013).
[3] Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008).

September 18, 2018

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Mixed media on birch panel, 48" x 36"
Here's one I haven't posted yet but I managed to sell on the weekend at Kaaboo Del Mar.

The couple that bought it were into plants, growing and identifying them by their names, an increasingly rare skill I'd say as we become more physically detached from territory and our knowledge base flattens out. 

The painting is another one for my "Walls" series, where I look at the idea of the human-made and natural worlds colliding at hard lines and birthing new realities.

The highfalutin title is from Dante's first line of the Divine Comedy, completed in 1320: "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita" - "Midway through life's journey, I found myself in a dark forest, having lost the straightforward path" (my translation). If you know anything about the poem, the dark forest is the worst of all worlds (Hell) and the path from which Dante has deviated represents the old philosophical quest to live, in the midst of challenges, in the best possible way. It's a beautiful setup.

Anyway, I've been working on a novel about life in Florence at the end of the Renaissance and so all this old way of writing and thinking (actually, though, it's as fresh as anything we struggle with today, eerily so) has been swimming around in my head.

Now, where was that path?

September 9, 2018

The Ol' Razoo

Mixed media on canvas, 60" x 45"
Here's another largish one featuring hummingbirds in a state-of-the-art industrial setting.

I've been told that there are a lot less of the buzzing, shimmering streaks of colour than there used to be in Southern California, but I've never seen as many in my life, having grown up in cooler climes.

They show up everywhere a flower can grow: the mountain valley where the sun struggles to penetrate and green grows, coiffed suburban shrubs, and breaches in cement. If they were larger and shit as much, we'd equate them with pigeons.

You're not supposed to anthropomorphize wildlife but I can't help think every time I see a hummingbird (and it's always one, never the confederacy in my painting, silly me) it's mocking me, laughing inside, giving the razoo, as they said in the gilded era. "Oi, you dope down there, sweatin' on the hard concrete, shufflin' from machine to machine. So clunky in the way you move. Go on, get pissed! You think you can catch me?"

(Incidentally, I'm gearing up for Kaaboo Del Mar next week, pushing it in the sauna that is my studio, getting light headed.)