Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but do not forget: The Supreme Leader's eye is beholding you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 3,652 days a decade. In other words, taste may be relative, but since we are all relatives, brothers and sisters, we must agree to agree on what's excellent in the visual, conceptual and performance arts. The following list of custodians of culture are marked with the leader's formal approval.
Best underrated stage experience
Most San Diegans look forward to a night at the opera about as much as they look forward to rain in summertime. Can you blame them? Little to no spoken dialogue, the lyrics are almost never in English and rather plump tenors and sopranos are playing the main parts.
Still, for more than half a century, the San Diego Opera (sdopera.com) has been luring top-name talent from around the world with little to no fanfare or media coverage. Opera America, the leading authority in the U.S., has ranked San Diego's company in the top 10 in the world. In the past five years alone, it's worked with big international, as well as local, names, including choreographer John Malashock, fashion designer Zandra Rhodes and singer Denyce Graves.
The upcoming season, which begins in late January, includes some of the most popular and classic operas: Faust, Turandot and Carmen. And unlike the castrato singers of yesteryear, the San Diego Opera folks are ballsy. They've given famous contemporary artist David Hockney carte blanche in designing the sets for Turandot.
Oh, and in case you were worried, there's a screen above the stage with subtitles in English, so nothing gets lost in translation.
Best venue for kids who aren't in screamo, pop-punk or metalcore bands
It's no surprise that visitors to The Park Gallery, a gallery and music venue in University Heights (4325 Park Blvd., theparkgallery.blogspot.com), often ask: “How does this even exist?” In a city in dire need of more all-ages venues, the place sounds too good to be true: It's all-ages and it's free.
The gallery's biggest advantage is its location—a drab building owned by the Fellowship of San Diego, the church next door, so the three volunteers who run the place (all members of the church) don't need to pay rent, charge at the door or even obtain a cabaret license.
Because it's a no-budget operation, the gallery might feel a little disorganized—there's no updated calendar, and its handful of monthly shows happen on irregular dates. Some visitors might chafe at the fact that the art and music has to be at PG-13 levels, a stern sign on the door reads “NO ALCOHOL,” and volunteers might ask you to tone down bad language.
All in all, though, the venue is remarkably laid-back. Anybody who asks is free to put their art up on the walls, anybody who e-mails can easily book a show (you just have to hope somebody e-mails you back) and nobody's proselytizing, so events don't have an unnecessarily wholesome feel.
Best place to pretend it's Día de los Muertos 24/7
Even from the outside, Casa Artelexia (2419 Kettner Blvd. in Little Italy, artelexia.com) is an intense burst of color on an otherwise average city street—a small, standalone house, painted brilliant orange and blue, with a string of bright papel picado banners hanging cheerfully over a terracotta porch.
The inside is no different. This little family-owned shop trades in handcrafted Mexican art, and every room is packed and overflowing with color and an all-encompassing reverence for the culture. (Even the house pets, a pair of parakeets, are named Frida and Diego. Too cute!) Beyond the simple pop kitsch of Loteria cards and luchador magnets—which, granted, is awesome enough already—the shop also gets serious with fine-art pieces like antique wall art, handcrafted silver jewelry, intricate Milagro carvings and cheerful ceramic kitchenware.
With so much to offer, Elexia Orlic and her father (the family behind the shop) could easily rest on their laurels as purveyors of sweet art wares; instead, they work overtime to promote active participation in the art and culture they clearly adore. From craft workshops to movie nights, something's going on at the little house nearly every weekend. Want to learn how to paint traditional ceramics, craft your own sugar skulls or build a proper Día de los Muertos altar? Casa Artelexia has you covered.
Just want to hang out, listen to live music, watch a movie on the lawn and stuff your face with MIHO truck tacos? Casa Artelexia has you covered there, too.
The best bar-art show in town
Showing art in bars can be tricky, but the promoters behind the weekly Basic Tuesdays event know what they're doing. The pop-up art and fashion event usually features a mix of emerging artists showing painting, photography and mixed media, a live artist or two doing their thing and a local merchant selling jewelry, clothing or both. It's been happening at Basic (410 10th Ave., Downtown, barbasic.com) for more than four years, and almost every time I've stopped by, I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the art.
At the last Basic Tuesdays show I checked out, a few kids were busy break-dancing to the sounds of a local hip-hop DJ as a smattering of guests perused the fashion photography, b-boy photography and illustrative paintings. An artist stood atop the covered pool table while bystanders watched as he painted a zombie princess in a pink dress. A girl from Peru was selling her Peruvian jewelry and Andi Brandenburg from Besos Not Bombs had her clothing on display.
The night has been in a bit in flux lately and has been passed around among a few promoters, but moving forward, Johnny Tran of Thumbprint Gallery will be taking over most of the nights, while long-time Basic Tuesdays masters like Kid RIZ and Kimoko will step in when needed. All of the folks behind the night can be trusted to put together a mighty fine art show.
Best large cultural facility (small-city division)
The museum is a find, giving local—and national—artists their due. The acoustics are masterful in both theaters: The 1,500-seat Concert Hall and 400-seat Center Theater. Binocular use is rare. And, because both performance venues are so intimate, unexpected happenings tend to happen at California Center for the Arts, Escondido (340 North Escondido Blvd., artcenter.org).
For instance, when the virtuosic youths of Juilliard Jazz Orchestra—Mensans of the music world—performed at CCAE a few years back, the great trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who happened to be in town, joined them for an impromptu jam. Nice surprise. During one Vince Gill performance, wife Amy Grant took the stage for an unannounced duet, and, during another performance, Gill was joined by '50s artist Patti Page, whom he'd just spotted in the front row.
The place gets a bad rep from slight-minded Escondidians who don't see the value in supporting an institution that serves people from all walks. When glass artist Therman Statom, whose immense crystalline pillars once filled the museum space, shared his techniques with foster teens from San Pasqual Academy, each created pieces that reflected their feelings. The resulting works were exquisite and, in many cases, disturbing. The point is, you couldn't see this exhibition elsewhere, and the process was healing for many of these youths.
Think Escondido's a hike? Parking at CCAE is free and ample, so pick your poison: Drive an extra 15 minutes and calmly enter the venue, hair all in place, or do battle elsewhere and pay a pretty penny. Just sayin'.
Best independent contractor to double as a theater group
In early March of this year, Ion Theatre Company artistic director Claudio Raygoza stood dumbfounded, beleaguered and mired among the sorry vestiges of Beirut West. He and Ion co-artistic director Glenn Paris had just acquired the old Compass Theatre, which was once Hillcrest's live-performance monument to potential collapse and the odor of stale pee; hard to believe that so small a space was home to such a colossal mess so deep into the rebuilding process. But a generous helping of elbow grease fueled the group's uncanny persistence. Today, BLK BOX @ 6th & Penn (3704 Sixth Ave.; iontheatre.com) has been transformed light by light and bolt by bolt into the finest small theater in San Diego.
Maybe it's the intimacy of the seating area; theater is a terribly communal act, and the L-shaped, 49-seat layout does encourage casual glimpses at the patrons enjoying the same show you are. Or it could be the choice of fare and the locale—Ion is San Diego's anchor for two-fisted, avant-garde journeys into the soul, and God knows Hillcrest has the shops and restaurants to augment any entertainment experience. I like to think the space is the neighborhood's own little nod to poetic justice. After gracing 14 venues since its debut in 2004 (which, ironically, took place in this same space), Ion has landed for good, with the city its lucky beneficiary.
—Martin Jones Westlin
Best community cultural center
San Ysidro isn't an arts center, but a little gallery space at 147 W. San Ysidro Blvd. is working to change that.
The Front is the arts-and-culture arm of Casa Familiar, a social-service and community-development agency that's been serving the border enclave for more than 40 years. From now through Jan. 3, Casa Familiar is featured in Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, an exhibition at the Museum of modern Art in New York that shows off the work of just 11 worldwide architectural projects that have responded to the needs of under-served communities.
Casa Familiar is known for alternative, community-focused development, and when you see what they've done with the gallery space and what they're currently doing with a building called “The Church” a few blocks away, you'll understand why the organization caught MOMA's attention.
The Front used to be a smog shop. After a lot of work, Casa Familiar turned the building into a nice-sized, open gallery. The space opened in 2007 with a show by Tijuana artist Marcos Ramirez Erre. Director of arts and culture Leticia Gomez and arts and culture officer Luz Camacho continue to put together top-notch shows, and they recently launched an artist-in-residence program using Roberto Salas as their guinea pig. The installation Salas built after working for weeks in a studio at The Church was a direct response to being surrounded by the Mexican immigrant work force living in San Ysidro. It's a start to something that could produce some of the most interesting art in the region.
Best renaissance man
Describing what he does as a “calculated approach to consumption,” Rob Keller—who works under the name Luxury Death Machine (luxurydeathmachine.com) fancies himself a jack of all trades or, at the least, a one-man multimedia machine. On his list of specialties: DJing, production engineering, fashion design, automotive painting, graphic design, graffiti murals, plush toys and fiberglass repair work. Oh, and throw in private chef and pastry services for good measure.
But it's his work in custom denim design that got my attention. I ran into him setting up shop in the corner of The Bakery in Barrio Logan during the recent Art San Diego art fair. There he was creating some kick-ass custom-fitted jeans using a sewing machine with only two settings. Using only sustainable, premium denim, Keller fawns over you with a tape measure like an old-school tailor and customizes the jeans to your specifications—whether you like your fit snug or loose or just want something to show off your butt.
Hell, if you're lucky, he might even make you dessert afterward.
‘Art before football!‘ the Leader pledges
The Leader wept openly upon seeing Viva La Revolucion, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. “The true voice of the people!” he declared, and then wondered, aloud, “How can I get a sitting with this Banksy fellow?”
When a New York arts critic recently described San Diego's cultural scene as “Velveeta” compared with New York's “fine, aged Gouda,” the Leader bristled.
“What's wrong with Velveeta? It makes broccoli taste better and needs no refrigeration. I invite Mr. Big Shot Art Guy to visit my splendid metropolis.”
The first stop, the Leader says, will be East Village and Barrio Logan. “Glashaus, Space 4 Art, The Bakery, Roots Factory, The Periscope Project and Voz Alta—I vow, art lovers of San Diego, no football stadium will get in the way of such displays of creativity!”
While the Leader's bummed to see Sushi's Fresh Sound Series wrap up its season next month, he's got Art Power's schedule in his iCal and is digging how small galleries like Thumbprint and ICE are making use of limited space. And though his performance at Malashock Thinks You Can Dance could be considered a low point in his reign, he thinks the dance company's got some good things going. You can also catch him at PGK Project's 4x4xFloor at Bluefoot the second Tuesday of every month (watching, not dancing).