Monday, January 21, 2013

Barnaby Conrad: Trompe l'Oeil

Barnaby Conrad has often said he paints pictures, draws portraits, and carves wooden versions of such objects as egg beaters and living things such as crocodiles and brown trout in order to avoid writing books.

When you pause to consider the number of books--novels and nonfiction--he has written, this confession of his seems yet another elaborate gesture, in effect a tromp l'oeil come to pass.  Conrad has in fact painted, drawn, and carved dozens, likely hundreds of these tricks of the eye from which the genre takes its name in French. He is quick to remind you how, in this context, one of his favorite commissions was to paint a swimming pool on a San Francisco rooftop, about which the client then deployed deck chairs, and served drinks there to guests.

His books run an eclectic spectrum, starting with his first novel, The Innocent Villa, of which he and the critics are dismissive, followed by his breakthrough bestseller, Matador, a roman a clef featuring a moody Spanish bullfighter.  An historical thriller, some years later, featured a character based on his younger self, attempting to foil the escape of a Nazi war criminal from Spain at the close of World War II.  His most recent fiction is a fanciful account of the life of John Wilkes Booth, after his assassination of Abraham Lincoln, wherein Booth is portraying Abraham Lincoln in a festival, and is shot by a man portraying John Wilkes Booth.

Nonfiction Conrad titles run from instructions on bullfighting to memoirs of his time as owner of a noted San Francisco bistro, to his stay at the Bette Ford Rehabilitation Center.  In the heyday of more literate magazines, he wrote travel and nostalgia pieces, including portraits of some of his many friends.

At a birthday celebration for him not long ago, the hostess placed two memorable party favors at the setting of each guest.  The first favor was a small wind-up toy with the built-in ability to recognize and stop short of running over the edge of a table or any raised surface.  Within moments of being seated, the guests had their toys sashaying over the table at a happy buzz, sounding like the aggregate giggle of amused youngsters at a playground.

The other party favor removed any doubt that decorum and dignity were to be shown the nearest exit.  At each setting, there was a clear plastic envelope containing one form or another of an exaggerated, paste-on mustache, ranging from the toothbrush shrub of Oliver Hardy to the handlebar often associated with barbershop quartets, and the shaggy droop reminiscent of Mark Twain and the Old West.

Within moments, the guests sprouted their facial furnishings, resulting in a sense of the mischievous ambiance of a Marx Brothers movie.  For the rest of the six-course dinner and suitable after-dinner refreshments, Barnaby and Mary Conrad, of all the guests, maintained the natural ease and good fellowship of persons who'd been born and raised, wearing exaggerated mustaches.

The Conrad home, in the Rincon Beach enclave just below Carpinteria, is in its way an extension of the wind-up toys and mustaches, although to be fair, there are many features, including Conrad's own paintings, charcoal portraits, sculpting, and intricate carvings best described without apology as art.  Even so, the atmosphere of mischief and irrepressible humor are as much a presence as the iodine tang from the nearby beach and slough.  The light switch in the guest bathroom is a case in point.  When you're aware of turning the lights on or off, you're drawn to the switch, a rascally conflation of a photo of the Michaelangelo statue of David and the up-down on-off lever, placed just a tad below David's waist.  No matter how many times you've been to Puesta del Sol you find yourself hesitating for a beat when you think to turn off the lights.

Today, you find yourself in the library, a room that seemingly has more books, photos, paintings, and drawings than it can accommodate.  In the center of the room, facing the western bank of windows, you see a large hospital bed, one that easily could be a part of some elaborate Conradian tromp l'oeil.  The details of the bed suggest the care Conrad takes when he renders details.  This one even has lettering attributing the bed to Hospice.  In the corner, you see two tall tanks of oxygen.  What fun Conrad might have had, carving and shaping those.  There, in the midst of the bed, a form Conrad might have done as a whimsical self-portrait, down to the faux Rolex watch he bought from a display outside the Tijuana bullring.  The figure's sidewalls, fluffy and cottony, protrude, as Conrad's do.

A nurse, wearing a Hospice jumper, nudges the figure with gentle concern, waking him from a doze.  "You've got a visitor,"  she says.

The figure in the bed comes to focus immediately, takes you in, then leans forward.  "Another fine mess you've got us into,"  he says, then motions you to the chair at his side.

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