Life and Art
Written by Lewis MacAdams
Edited by Kyle Roderick
Brett Goldstone was born November 10, 1958, in Auckland, New Zealand, to Wendy McGill Goldstone and Raymond Leslie Goldstone. The oldest son in a family of five, Goldstone grew up in Remuera, a well-to-do neighborhood of Auckland, the country’s financial capital. An award-winning milliner and fashion designer, Wendy Goldstone owned and operated a luxury clothing boutique in Auckland for over two decades; she also designed one of the family’s houses.
Like his father and grandfather, Goldstone attended Auckland Grammar School, an elite public school founded in the mid-19th Century. Grammar was the school of choice for sons of families either ineligible or uninterested in the Episcopalian and Presbyterian schools that educated Auckland’s haute bourgeois and upper classes.
Goldstone’s great uncle on his mother’s side, Henry "Buster" O’Connor, had been an eminent tropical disease specialist. Another great-uncle, the cultural impresario Dan O’Connor, brought poet Dame Edith Sitwell and other British artists and performers to tour remote New Zealand, then a provincial, largely agricultural country with a minimal art scene.
Goldstone’s second cousin, the Auckland artist and collector Bill Cocker, has been a lifelong inspiration through his impassioned art making and historically significant art collection. Another relative, the painter Bill Buckley, was an accomplished formal painter.
Goldstone claims he’s always been an artist. "If you’re into art, you know it pretty young," he explains. "I was always good at drawing, painting and building things."
As an eight-year-old, Goldstone made his own skateboard out of a broken one he found in the street. "I fixed it up, gave it a new coat of paint and sprinkled sand into the paint for a good grip." Several years later, he made his own knee-high Hippie style Ugg boots out of used carpet scraps.
Even as a very young boy, Goldstone loved looking at cartoons…and drawing them. He remembers enjoying the illustrations in his grandmother’s copies of Punch, along with books by the cartoonist "Giles" of the London Daily Express, along with animated TV cartoons such as The Flintstones. He also greatly admired the work of English cartoonists and illustrators Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman.
His parents divorced when he was eleven. In conservative late 1960s New Zealand, divorce still cast a shaming stigma on the adults and children involved. Experiencing the break-up of his family and its social fall-out surely shaped Goldstone’s devotion to art, for it was the one love in his life that remained ever-satisfying and durable. Of course, it was also the one love over which he had complete dominion.
As a teenager, Goldstone developed his technique by cartooning on his own and added more formal qualities to the work by studying his friend’s father’s Rembrandt etchings. He remembers attending museum exhibitions by British sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, among others.
When Goldstone was fourteen, Friedensreich Hundertwasser came to New Zealand to show at the Auckland City Gallery. Hundertwasser was an Austrian artist, architect and social activist famous for his undulating forms and color wizardry, along with a visceral loathing of symmetry and the straight line.
Hundertwasser’s work spiritedly softened the impact of post-World War Two urban re-development. It integrated the landscape into the environment in an attempt to bring people closer to nature and lessen their alienation from gritty city surroundings. A philosopher-artist, Hundertwasser opened Brett’s mind to the social implications and possibilities of art, architecture and performance art in an age of consumer culture and the planned obsolescence of products.
While he never applied to art school due to his family’s desire that he become a lawyer, Goldstone did study art history at university. Looking at yellowed slides of European masters made him long to see the originals. Instead, he attended law school at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. He dropped out in 1979 and he landed in L.A. the first time in 1979 in the middle of a six month U.S. tour. He liked the weather and got a job stacking wood in an L.A. lumberyard work that financed several months of European travel. With two Argentinians he met on the road, Goldstone visited museums and cultural sites in capital cities.
Wanting to experience less rarified realms, Goldstone chose to spend the better part of a year wandering South America. The poverty, vitality, brutality and beauty of what he observed and experienced opened windows into humanity that Europe never did. While he traveled, he drew every day, learned Spanish and lived cheaply, often sleeping on the side of the road.
In totalitarian Argentina, Goldstone studied art in Cordoba and stayed in a house owned by a government censor who confiscated his books. He spent weeks on the road traveling with Israeli spies who were masquerading as tourists. Goldstone followed the Inca trail and hiked Machu Pichu; chewing coca leaves as he climbed high altitude passes.
A funky plane flight in Colombia to a nearby destination turned into a nightmare: the pilots turned out to be smugglers. Caught in a thunder and lightning storm on a rickety World War II era prop airplane, they flew so high that other passengers were turning blue and gasping for breath. Upon landing hundreds of miles in the opposite direction in a jungle backwater, Goldstone confronted the pilots and repeatedly insisted: "This was not a Christian thing to do. What would your mothers say if they knew? Give me my money back." Chastened, the crooks returned his cash while the other passengers fled into the night.
In 1980, Goldstone landed in Los Angeles, exhausted, recovering from dysentery and in full-blown culture shock. Following in the footsteps of many an illegal alien, Goldstone crashed with one of his mother’s friends in Canoga Park. He took the inauspicious gig of pushing a submarine sandwich cart up and down Sherman Way and Ventura Blvd. in the San Fernando Valley.
The Valley landscape represented the polar opposite of his native land: harsh, analytical sunlight, sprawling mountains and a valley scarred with roads and freeways. A vast American western panorama of cars, parking lots, road signs and huge blue sky.
Briar Green, an Auckland architect who has known Goldstone for several years, observes that, "In New Zealand, the topography is dramatic and compressed, with a small population and a daunting landscape, very strong light, and therefore very dark shadows and moisture. A lot of rot and decay."
It is easy to imagine Goldstone peering out beyond the mom-and-pop discount carpet emporia and the storefront Karate studios that made up the one story Ventura Blvd of the 1980’s. He would have gazed across the broad expanse of the San Fernando Valley towards the long blue shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains.
"The L.A. sky seldom has clouds or wind like you see in New Zealand," Briar Green notes. "It’s broad, blue. Everything seems to be stretching. There is no reference point. The sky is the limit." Goldstone had chosen a place where his ambition and inspiration could have free rein. One of the most important reasons he stayed in L.A., he claims, "was so that I could have an open-air studio and show my art outdoors."
By 1981, Goldstone had saved enough money to lease a derelict 10,000 square foot firetrap in Chinatown, Los Angeles at 945 North. Main Street. Decades earlier, the building had been the factory for the Tourist automobile, the only automobile ever fully manufactured in Los Angeles. He divided the space into five crude living areas with one communal bathroom. In a cheeky nod to the nearby "Women’s Building" post-feminist art center on North Spring Street, Goldstone dubbed this place "The Boys’ Building."
In the early 1980s, Goldstone sold cartoons to the Los Angeles Times and drew four covers for the L.A. Reader, a long-defunct weekly alternative newspaper. He studied the work of Alexander Calder, Jean Tinguely, Wassily Kandinsky, and Ed Kienholz. He responded strongly to the early work of Chris Burden, who he deems "the first really important body artist."
To Goldstone, Burden was "the first artist to take the attention off the object. You just had to have a description to know what the work was about. Shooting himself in the arm: no one could have seen it happen. The bullet was moving too fast. The image of the piece was something that you created in your own mind."
Goldstone says his most important influence, however, remains Hero of Alexandria, who proposed a theory for the steam engine and a robot a century before Jesus.
On a visit back to Auckland, Goldstone made a name for himself with a series of headline-making art provocations. Goldstone’s first big show, in 1983, bore the title, Art In the Burner, and exhibited Goldstone’s paintings and assemblages in the massive brick Victoria St. Destructor Station, a long-abandoned municipal incinerator. "Some of the paintings are barely visible in the interior gloom among the piles of rubbish," the Auckland Star reported, "but the near darkness lends a dramatic air to the setting." A photo of the same show in the New Zealand Herald catches Brett in his mom’s old Nordic-style ski sweater and a pair of battered red Converse All-Stars, feet up on one of the hundreds of rubbish crates that jam the room. A hand-painted sign points to a dead cat in a cupboard. On one wall Goldstone hung a dead rat.
"I don’t like the pretentious, sophisticated art world that exists, he told the reporter. "It is such an unnecessary context." Though almost all of Goldstone’s paintings were stolen, the publicity from the show brought so much attention to the site that the city decided to clean it up and turn it into the Victoria Park Market complex. Ever since it opened, Victoria Park Market has been a popular shopping mall and tourist destination. This transformation was Goldstone’s first experience of the political implications of his work.
That same year, a front page photo in the Star shows what the paper describes as Goldstone’s last New Zealand artwork, "Too Big For Rodney," a hundred by forty foot canvas portraying a red, ET-like character leaving New Zealand suspended from an Auckland Gas Company "gasometer," a natural gas storage tank. So immense it took Goldstone two weeks to sew all the pieces together and seven men to rope it into place, Goldstone told the Star: "I don’t know what is going to happen to the painting. It’s here as a gift to the city and it’s up to them what they do with it – whether they take it down and cut it into little pieces or whatever."
The two shows shared numerous elements that have reappeared in many of the works Goldstone has made since, along with a similarity in press coverage. Both combined painting and performance, with the media highlighting the artist and the gesture rather than the art objects themselves. Both used publicly owned infrastructure and were mounted without the permission of the buildings’ owners. Both pieces were made by an artist who scorned the culture he was working in, yet seemingly hungered for its rewards. It is easy to read in these capers (and in works to come) an envy of the in-crowd and an equally powerful desire to become the legendary outsider, as well.
"It was always my goal to transform the audience," Goldstone says. "I remember the way it felt stepping off of buses in South America and feeling overcome by the life, the atmosphere, the intensity of the scene. I wanted to give people that same sense of awe," he says.
The truth was, he admits, "I didn’t like people telling me what to do. I hate anyone telling me anything." He began to look at the L.A. art world as fundamentally interchangeable with Auckland’s. "I don’t like hierarchies. I decided to establish myself as a self-reliant artist who had nothing to do with the gallery." Nevertheless, as much as he rejected the art world, he was doing as much as he could to subvert it.
Signing himself "Art Attack," Goldstone perpetrated a series of graphic, performance and sculptural works anonymously directed against the expectations, class consciousness and occasionally even the persons attending some of L.A.’s most refined fine art events in the 1980s.
Today, Goldstone laughingly admits that he took advantage of the art establishment’s pre-organized spectacles and used them to exhibit his work. Take for example the black-tie gala for Lucinda Childs’ "Available Light" show at the Temporary (now Geffen) Contemporary in Little Tokyo. Goldstone climbed up into one of the mammoth fig trees across from the museum’s entrance and hung a trio of huge primitive warriors made of Coke cans, wire and odd bits of metal. Hiding behind a dense mass of fig leaves, Goldstone hurled down abusive comments at arriving guests.
When the pioneering downtown arts organization, LAVA, the Los Angeles Visual Arts Festival, sponsored walking tours of the studio spaces and galleries of the industrial neighborhoods downtown, Goldstone independently produced sandwich boards and a map that guided hundreds of people off the official route to pieces he’d built on skid row.
One animated an abandoned gas station across the street from the Wallenboyd Theater at the corner of Wall and Boyd, while another graced Al’s Bar, the popular art bar on Traction Avenue. Goldstone built a coin-operated robot that plugged into a light socket outside Gorky’s Café, another downtown artists’ hangout. This spirited robot masturbated for thirty seconds until a red light began glowing at the tip of its mechanical dick.
At the opening of a rowdy, drunken downtown art survey, Goldstone unfurled a banner from the roof of the long-since-demolished Cotton Exchange Building that portrayed a policeman beating up a homeless, intoxicated man. It riled the police so profoundly that they removed the mural and brought in police photographers to shoot some snaps of Goldstone.
By the time he was 24, Goldstone he says he had learned "how important it was for all young artists to hook up with an older mentor to drag you through the scene." Through his then-girlfriend, art critic Kathy Norklun, he met nascent art stars of the era such as Barbara Kruger and Sherri Levine, along with many other influential artists. He and Norklun co-edited a magazine called Spectacle, which featured the works of artists like Mike Kelly, Jim Shaw, and poet/critic Peter Schjeldahl.
In 1985, Goldstone met artist Mark Pauline at a show sponsored by LACE, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, in the downtown Santa Fe rail yard, inaugurating a working relationship with Pauline’s San Francisco-based Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) that would last for two years and three shows.
Goldstone learned to build radio-controlled robotic "walking machines" for a trio of shows that New York Times reporter Mark Dery described as "…stupefyingly loud spectacles in which infernal machines armed with buzzsaw blades and bear-trap jaws do battle in a murk of smoke, flames and fumes."
Goldstone’s work has often been lumped with Pauline’s ever since, a perception that Goldstone rejects. "Pauline came out of the Defense Department. His machines were heavy, crushing and violent. My work is about the delicate and tentative nature of machinery. His work would crush you. Mine would approach you and stop." Another important difference between his work and Pauline’s was that SRL rarely featured human players. Goldstone’s pieces kept him at the center of his performances: re-building, tinkering with; repairing and maintaining the pieces as the shows unfolded.
Goldstone had also begun to deal with the financial implications of his decision to steer clear of the commercial art world. He has naturally never applied for a grant from the National Endowment for The Arts. In 1984, he spent $40,000 to buy his first house. Once a traveling Santa Fe Railroad workers cottage, narrow enough to sit on the bed of a flat car, it was located on an industrial side street just east of the Los Angeles River. In order to cover the mortgage, Goldstone sublet his own living space and moved into a lean-to he’d built on the back of his welding truck.
Though Goldstone couldn’t afford to attend art school formally, in the mid-1980s, he audited classes at UCLA. At this time, Chris Burden headed the "New Forms and Concepts" division, the conceptual department of the Fine Art School.
Goldstone participated in the reviews and was invited by Paul McCarthy to speak to his undergraduate class. Goldstone lectured on the importance of life experience. He gave a speech on the shoes he’d worn while traveling around the world and used the shoes as a metaphor for his journey through life and experience of art.
With McCarthy’s class, he published a 32 page booklet using his modified A.B. Dick mimeograph machine. The two hour class evolved into a performance with Kim Jones, Paul McCarthy and Goldstone, plotting a 2-dimensional graphic record of the event on the classroom floor.
"I met Brett in the 80’s when he was living in his truck," says painter, ceramicist and UCLA faculty member Roger Hermann. "He had an old refrigerator welded to the bed where he kept all his possessions. Once Brett’s truck engine blew up," Hermann recalls with a laugh, "and for three days he stayed beside the freeway, welding. I thought, ‘this guy is like the Road Warrior.’" Goldstone put up an "Artist Wants Junk" sign on a 210 Freeway overpass with his telephone number on it. Then he roamed around the city picking up peoples’ cast-offs, making what he called "mobile performances."
According to Mark Dery, writing in the March 15, 1992 New York Times, Goldstone is a "streetcomber." "I’ve always used junk," Goldstone shrugs, as if it’s not an important issue, "because it’s free and it’s readily available. There’s more junk here in America than anywhere else in the world." In those days, says Goldstone, he changed studios frequently. "Basically I would go from one free place to another. And every time I changed studios, that’s where my next show would be."
From one house, Brett would eventually own several. By 2005, his holdings had grown to 35,000 sq. ft. in several small contiguous houses with approximately twenty-five residents from "Mexican people to arty-farties."
Artist Tim Quinn, who now runs a gallery at Santa Fe and 8th St. near the Los Angeles River, met Goldstone in Chris Burden’s UCLA class. Goldstone was "a refreshing feeling" for these college artists, says Quinn. Though only a few years older than most of them, he was a sort of mentor. "Ethical and clear," says Quinn. "He made it work. He taught me a tremendous amount about just doing it. It’s the Gordian knot thing: ‘this isn’t really a problem’ - just slice through the knot with a sword."
Through Chris Burden, Goldstone met artist Skip Arnold, with whom he would collaborate on a number of shows, and future fine art robot-maker Chico MacMurtrie, to whom he passed on the pneumatic skills he’d developed working with Mark Pauline.
Goldstone and Norklun split up in 1986. By 1987, he had started publishing his own magazine, EMIT, to impress his new girlfriend, Kyle Roderick, a New York magazine editor and writer who became his wife in 1988. Printed on the trusty A.B. Dick mimeo machine, EMIT (whose logo was a funky copy of the TIME magazine logo spelled backwards) had an editorial policy of publishing anything its contributors slipped under Goldstone’s door.
At a time when the fledgling L.A. art scene was primarily New York and Euro-centric, EMIT concentrated on Pacific Rim artists. Goldstone published art and text by such UCLA-related artists as Monique Prieto, Skip Arnold, Tim Quinn, Brad Hwang, Paul McCarthy, etc.
By 1987, Goldstone and other artists from UCLA’s Master’s program were presenting a series of kinetic sculpture shows, or "Steam Shows," in Goldstone’s Elmyra Street studio (formerly the Los Angeles Boiler Works), fashion designer Michelle Lamy’s Traction Avenue parking lot and at out-of-town galleries such as CRASHarts in Phoenix, AZ.
Goldstone and his work faced major difficulties when dealing with art galleries. "Insurance and the fire marshals," Goldstone asserts, "have done more to inhibit the development of sculpture than the NEA and leading art critics."
Indoor spaces couldn’t show his works because they couldn’t get permits. "The steam shows," he claims, "could never be legal, because the building and safety codes require commercially engineered boilers and I like to make my own." At the FAR Bazaar show at the old Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Los Angeles, the Fire Marshall stopped him from using the hand-made steam-powered coin press he was using to mint coins out of lead that could be exchanged for dollar beers.
In 1987, Quinn, Goldstone, and several other artists, including Chico MacMurtrie, Jack Nault, Brad Hwang and Tim Quinn, founded L.A. Experimental Works, a kinetic sculpture cooperative that presented July 4th group shows in Los Angeles and Phoenix, from 1987 to 1989. Most of the artists were welders, and the group also included UCLA alums Monique Prieto, Lauren Tawa and others.
Each of the artists incorporated natural processes, such as using fire to make steam, creating a chain of events that made sculptures move. "It wasn’t about a beautiful object," Quinn explains. "The shows were an expression of Brett’s belief that you had to understand what you were doing and build it from the ground up, channeling energy into positive action. Thus the meaning of Independence Day." The first "activation," as Brett called them, was held in spring 1987 at the Los Angeles Boiler Works, an abandoned boiler factory on Elmyra Street between the old Cornfield railroad yard and the Los Angeles River. Brett was living here by the grace of the property’s owner, a Vietnamese produce business owner whose warehouse flanked the Boiler Works office.
Goldstone activated a huge steam engine during his July 4th 1987 show at the Boiler Works. An L.A. Steamworks show took place downtown over the three day 1987 Labor Day weekend in fashion designer Michelle Lamy’s parking lot next to Al’s Bar. In 1992 and 1993, there were July 4th group shows at King Wire, a factory in Highland Park. Brett functioned as the center of attention with a belt full of tools, tweaking the machines, making them work. "Brett was the guy pulling it all together," recalls Quinn. "He had the spirit, the leadership quality. He was the stand-in for everybody, a Democratic Spirit."
Though Goldstone no longer labeled his pieces Art Attacks, "They were definitely un-permitted gatherings on public land," says Goldstone. "It’s easier to seek forgiveness than seek permission, that’s my philosophy." By the 90’s he’d stopped using the phrase "art attack" entirely, even though the shows remained completely illegal in terms of permits. His July 4th events, which were just about the only way to see his work, drew as many as four hundred people.
In his book, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of The Century, Mark Dery describes a 1990 Goldstone multimedia performance and kinetic art piece presented in the parking lot of the North Avenue 21 St. Vincent de Paul, a cavernous thrift store located across the street from his studio.
Employing materials such as aluminum and plastic tubing, televisions, carpeting and cookie tins that were ingeniously recycled and assembled from garbage found in St. Vincent’s dumpsters, "Bird Land" presented a narrative of bird life in three tableaux: one with clean water, one with dirty water and a third with no water at all.
In the first scene, a bird is brought to life by water pumped down its vacuum-cleaner–tube gullet, causing its tin wings to flap excitedly. In the second, a compressed air-powered walking bird made of two lamp shades and a beach chair wades in oily water. In the last, a 20 foot tall albatross nests in a pile of discarded broken TV sets and hi-fis. Occasionally, the big bird reaches down with its articulated neck and beak to pick up soda cans from the asphalt.
An eerily compelling original electronic soundtrack composed by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek accompanied the birds’ motions, blaring out of distorted, antiquated speakers that had also been salvaged from dumpsters. Kaczmarek, a Polish composer who had recently moved to Los Angeles, eventually won an Academy Award for his original score for the 2004 film "Finding Neverland."
At his 4th of July show in 1991, Goldstone was hand-cuffed by the railroad police for operating a home-made handcar on an unused part of Santa Fe railroad track under the North Broadway bridge.
About one hundred onlookers, including his wife, children and patron, the late architect Frank Israel, waited expectantly to see if he’d be carted off to jail. He was merely given a ticket, however, and the show went on. When the case came to court the judge laughed and threw it out immediately. It occurred to Goldstone that the way he was presenting work might jeopardize his immigration status. "I gradually started choosing sites with more space and more protection from authority," he recalls.
I remember one July 4th in the mid-90’s in the parking lot of an industrial building across the street from the Norton Simon Museum, where Brett was making table legs for Starbuck’s coffee houses. Because the land beneath the blacktop was owned by the Museum, Brett called it the "Norton Simon Back-Alley Show." My son and daughter were friends of his and Kyle Roderick’s twin sons. As the adults unfolded beach chairs and umbrellas in the broiling parking lot and tried to stay cool, the kids chased each other among the two-story high sculptures.
As the sun rose high in the sky, the sculptures gradually came to life. One was just a big shimmering tree. At the other end of a pair of home-made, motor-powered rotating armatures wrapped in copper wire, hundreds of aluminum soda can leaves oscillated nosily, glittering in the sun. A mechanical finger machine plucked a steel lute. A steam-powered walking tower machine lurched dangerously, spraying the children with water as Brett moved from one machine to the next with an oil can, coaxing each of them to life. On the surface," Quinn elaborated, "it was about sculpture, but with Brett it was about theater. The shows were sculpture and performance art."
There were a number of factors that sent Brett towards the L.A. River. After the Norton Simon Back-Alley show, Goldstone says his mother came up to him and said "Brett, I think you’re getting a bit old for this. Stand back and take a look at yourself." Suddenly, in his own eyes, he "felt pathetic – same crowd, same audience. I realized I was getting older and I wanted to step back."
Goldstone was drawn to the Los Angeles River system originally by its convenience to his studio. One of the River’s largest tributaries, the Arroyo Seco/Hahamugna (flowing water fertile valley in Chumash), is only a few blocks from his house. Tim Quinn, the only artist besides Goldstone to participate in Goldstone’s first L.A. River show, says the decision to go there was "an instinctive impulse."
The river in those days was a free zone, a big enough open area where nobody could get hurt. The River didn’t matter to anybody. We could get a show up with no permits, and the cops wouldn’t show up for two hours." Brett says that he had come to see that he wanted to make art that was more socially useful, an urge he attributes partially to having grown up in New Zealand’s socialist system.
Brett would eventually stage three L.A. River shows. The first was just upstream from the Avenue 64 bridge over the Arroyo Seco on July 4th, 1997. Brett built a turbine that would work with the creek’s hydraulic power to light the graceful Avenue 64 Bridge. On another level, Brett sought to highlight the bridge, one of the unsung creations of Merrill Butler, the Los Angeles city bridge engineer for nearly forty years, at a moment when the National Park Service was considering placing Butler’s bridges on the National Historical Engineering Record.
At a 1996 July 4th show in the Arroyo Seco, Brett harnessed the water trickling down the middle of the concrete channel to power a hand-made railroad engine around a track. The way Tim Quinn describes it, "Brett took the energy of flowing water, energy that was freely available, and used it to create a positive outcome."
I can’t recall why, but the next July 4th L.A. River show was held at Brett’s North Avenue 21 compound. Brett built a rusty metal yacht weighing several thousand pounds, and used steam power to rock the boat around as if it were being tossed on an open sea. Artist Liz Young wearing a Statue of Liberty dress and a forced smile sat in her wheel chair in a dung pile. I tore up some rags, painted poems on them, then Brett turned them into prayer flags by running them up a pole as a deadly stealth bomber thundered overhead.
In between the L.A. River shows, he spent two summers working in Europe. In 1996, at Arz Electronica, a festival at an old industrial site on the Danube River in Linz, Austria, Goldstone recalls being "so overwhelmed by how much they drank," that he built a beer garden, featuring two 20 foot tall trees made out of material he’d scavenged from recycling piles. In this case the leaves were made out of hundreds of beer bottles that "smashed like cherries" when the machines gathered steam.
On a canal of the Spree River in Berlin in 1997, he built a completely illegal boiler in the burnt out hull of a canal barge. According to Goldstone, "This is a huge offense in Europe. It’s like building a fucking bomb," but away he went, using it to power a fourteen foot paddle wheel. Then he built a tiller to steer the barge. The boiler got so hot that the barge’s floor boards caught fire. Still, he was able to paddle it down the canal to the Spree, then paddle back, a distance of about five hundred yards.
Goldstone claims he made his last work of art for the Los Angeles River show on July 4 in 1998. The piece comprised a forty foot long suspension bridge he built out of used planks and rusty half-inch steel tubing. Several hundred people picnicked or strolled along the river as Brett winched the two pieces of "Crossing The Bridge Is an Act of Faith" (based on painter Sandro Chia’s observation that to paint is an act of faith) from the back of his pickup truck down the trapezoidal channel wall to the water. When it was installed, he drove away.
Immediately children started running back and forth across the planks to a rocky sandbar overrun with bamboo. Their parents followed, enjoying peaceful passage over the miniature suspension bridge, and the water rushing by a few inches below their feet.
Though "Crossing the Bridge..." was similar to many of Goldstone’s other pieces in that "there was never a line between the show and the audience," for Goldstone it was an important next step, the first work he’d made that he wasn’t part of. "I just made it and left." Perhaps even more important, the bridge was perfect, "an ideal form." He thought it a good place to stop. "I took Frank Stella’s advice and quit at age 40. Too bad he didn’t." He denies that he’s being "pig-headed or self-destructive, but art is a vocation, a calling. It’s not a career."
As circumstance would have it, shortly after "Crossing the Bridge," Goldstone was commissioned to design a gate. This development moved his imagination, studio and life in new directions. Goldstone’s first gate went up in Hollywood in 1998 for Soundeluxe Post-Production Sound Studios, located between Lexington and Vine Streets.
In carefully wrought, plasma-cut steel, the Soundeluxe gate traces the environmentally picaresque adventure from New Zealand to Los Angeles…from the Southern Pacific Ocean to the coast of Southern California, inland to Hollywood, then deep into downtown Los Angeles and on…eastwards into the desert.
Goldstone has been drawing skyscrapers with big windows in a style that makes me think of Philip Guston since the 1980’s. In the 90’s at the Brea Municipal Gallery show in Brea, California, he built 60 stainless steel wire mesh skyscrapers that gracefully rolled around an elevated train track. Similar skyscrapers appear in the Soundeluxe gates, then they morph into cacti. A road through the desert ends in a golf hole. The gate won a Charlie Award for decorative arts from the Hollywood Arts Council.
More gate commissions followed the one for Soundeluxe. Though they have brought him his greatest renown, he insists emphatically that they are "not art," as they are built with a purpose. The gates can swing open and closed. They can invite or reject. They define the difference between public and private spaces and mediate. They "can be artistic," he insists, "but not art." His friend Roger Hermann agrees with him. "His gates are more of a craft." Why aren’t gates art? "Because they’re decorative art," says Goldstone.
To clarify, Goldstone notes that his 1998 bridge piece was indeed a work of art, because it served no utilitarian function. "The bridge was probably my purest piece because it wasn’t about anything," he continues. "It was just a bridge that didn’t go anywhere. Art can’t function as anything else if it’s going to be art. If it has any other function, then that is what it is. If you use a painting to blend your sofa and your wallpaper, then it’s not art."
In his next two gates, one on each side of Merrill Butler’s simple yet beautiful Fletcher Drive bridge that connects the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Atwater, the Los Angeles River is the center of the narration.
Briar Green says that whenever he visits New Zealand, Brett "is always talking about the L.A. River." New Zealand is a country with many rivers, so she was surprised when she first spotted the Rio des Los Angeles for the first time flowing placidly down the concrete. She thinks Goldstone embraces the Los Angeles River as a metaphor. To Green, L.A. seems a city saturated with stories. "In L.A. you make up your own stories about the landscape." As a gate-maker, Goldstone is a narrator of wrought-steel cartoons.
click to enlarge
In Brett’s first Fletcher Drive gate, the Great Heron Gate on the Silver Lake side of the Fletcher bridge, the river is the central character in a story woven into the texture of the gate. Painted rust red, the wrought steel Great Heron Gates at Rattlesnake Park on the Silver Lake side of the river are dominated by a pair of Great Blue Herons, the wading bird with a four foot wingspan that has become an ad hoc symbol of the L.A. River. The bird’s beaks meet where the gate’s two sections come together.
The background portrays the Rio des Los Angeles from the mountains to downtown L.A., which is represented by Goldstone’s big-windowed skyscrapers. A few months after they were commissioned, Mayor Richard Riordan inaugurated the gates on Earth Day, 1999, and they have become an instant land mark, a backdrop for prominent Los Angeles politicians such as Antonio Villaraigosa as well as fashion shoots.
Though the gates remain padlocked (the actual entrance to the mini-park built by the tree-planting organization Northeast Trees is through a narrower gate on the side), does it matter? After all, it’s a metaphorical entrance to a metaphorical river. The Great Heron Gate was funded by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA). The MRCA is an agency of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy which has acquired and administers more than fifty thousand acres of mostly wilderness mountains between the Coast and the desert. One day, the head of the MRCA, Joe Edmiston was lamenting that nearly every slough, channel, tributary, debris basin and watercourse of the L.A. River System was fenced off from the public with rusty chain-link fences and warning signs that read "Keep Out! $500 fine and/or six months in jail."
Edmiston asked if Friends of the Los Angeles River (an organization that I founded) could build the River’s first welcome gate for $20,000. There would be a refreshing lack of Request for Proposals, no artistic competition, no panel of judges, no pre-qualifying, in fact no qualifications, we agreed. I called Brett and asked if he could design, build, and install a gate at Rattlesnake Park, along the still, after all these years unbuilt (!) L.A. River bike path for $17,500. He immediately said yes.
Goldstone built his next gate, Water with Rocks, on the other side of Fletcher Drive, at the Atwater end of the bridge. This project was commissioned by Northeast Trees as the entrance to a viewing area above a walking path. Goldstone’s steel, rock and glass-studded gate earned him a special citation from the California State Assembly for urban renewal and beautification of public space. In the bridge’s background narrative, the Los Angeles River is far less benign than it is portrayed in the Great Heron Gates: flood waves roll down from the San Gabriel mountains to smash into downtown’s glass and steel skyscrapers. The most recent public gate (Goldstone has built numerous private ones) remains uninstalled as of this writing. Before it was channelized, the Los Angeles River moved across a broad flood-plain. Sometimes it entered the ocean at what is now Long Beach and San Pedro, at other times at what is now Marina Del Rey. Today Ballona Creek, and the Ballona wetlands are connected to the Los Angeles River through a series of storm drains. Brett’s Ballona gate will provide access to the creek from Centinela Blvd.
"As an artist you start out just trying to show off," Goldstone says. "Once you have enough of that you want money. Then, after you get money you want to exert some cultural influence. What difference do I want to make? Certainly the gates are making the world a more beautiful place." He blames his consciousness on his New Zealand upbringing. "It’s a socialist country where it’s widely considered impolite to be too ambitious. It makes you much more conscious of the public realm, it gives you a much deeper sense of social obligation. The gates are an echo of what art should be – public, accessible, free."
"Are you a political artist?" I ask him.
"Being an artist is political," Goldstone replies.
In the 21st century, Goldstone built a twenty foot high Ferris wheel (which also resembles a gigantic water wheel), but it has never been finished or shown. The big wheel sits rusting in the yard of his studio.
Goldstone also built and exhibited a thirty foot high model for a proposed thousand foot tall great blue heron. This mega-heron will one day stand with one leg anchored on the east bank of the Los Angeles River and the other on the west, replete with an observation platform for viewing the Los Angeles River watershed through "birds’ eyes." Goldstone intends for this monumental wading bird to rise with beauty above the river and the L.A. cityscape in a similar way that the Eiffel Tower rises above the Seine and graces Paris. Goldstone is gripped by the technological challenge of moving people through the heron’s elongated neck and says it’s something he can work on for the rest of his life.
Goldstone, 46 years old at the time of this writing, cites numerous reasons why he ceased making art.
"I wasn’t prepared to compromise. I couldn’t make any money and I didn’t want to turn it into a business. I couldn’t couch what I was doing in the language of the art world. I had a family to feed. The work I was doing was so physically demanding, I couldn’t look at a piece of steel without getting a pain in my back. With live art shows, at the end you’re dead, and you’ve got all these art works hanging around your house. The final reason was the risk. I just couldn’t afford the hassles with the cops and the galleries couldn’t afford the insurance to show me."
But Goldstone takes it further. He insists that he doesn’t have to make art to be an artist, that art can be an intention, that one can be an artist by making every decision according to aesthetic preferences. "The idea of not having to make art at all is the purest form of the intent of the artist," he maintains. "It’s where you’d like to see art go."
Roger Hermann thinks Brett "believes in art," but sees him as one of those people who "…get paralyzed because their standards are so high. He sees art as like a corporate sell-out," he chuckles ruefully, "…something I learn more about every day."
Maybe knowing how to do so many things has made it difficult for Goldstone to stay focused on the commodification of the art object that improves the likelihood of financial success in the art world. Commercial jobs like designer Lee Danziger’s Starbuck’s coffee tables he built by the thousands have taken him deep into the commercial sector. Goldstone has a contractor’s license and did all the structural steelwork that helped convert a vast Hollywood warehouse into celebrity yogini Gurmukh’s multi-faceted Golden Bridge Yoga center.
Has Goldstone given up art to become a business man? He finds the question irrelevant. The way he looks at it, every successful artist has to be a businessman.
"If there is anything that’s taking the place of art," however, "it’s the sailing." He’s restoring his second old sail boat. Doing it, he explains, takes a lot of what he calls "aesthetic, crafty, hands-on energy," which he has always liked. A boat, for Brett, is a pure form, like a bridge. Like a bridge, a boat’s beauty is determined by its function. "When you look at a boat you see beauty, but it still has to be manifested somehow."
Since 2001, Goldstone has been spending considerable time in New Zealand. According to Green, many people there think he is a Yank because he has shed his accent and developed a quasi-American way of speaking. He continues, however, to carry a New Zealand passport. His sons go to the same high school that he attended, Auckland Grammar.
Aside from the fact that his children go to school there, why does he spend so much time in New Zealand? "Comfort," he proposes. "Because I’m a New Zealander. The landscape you see when you’re a child stays with you for the rest of your life." He loves the ocean, sky and green hills of Waiuku, west of Auckland. His A frame house (which he had moved to the site) was formerly the tea shop on the grounds of a stately home and park. Now it sits on the wild, windy West coast with a view of the Tasman Sea.
Green compares Goldstone to a snake constantly shedding his skin. "A skin lives and breathes when it’s alive," she says, "but is just material when it is no longer alive." This is an accurate description of how Goldstone approaches art-making. It’s also an apt metaphor for an artist who is alternately living in the dynamic Pacific Rim nexus of Los Angeles and his beloved native New Zealand. "Brett’s projects sometimes seem discarded," she explains, "but maybe it’s a matter of leaving a layer so as to inject life into the next project."
To this writer, his work incorporates restlessness; an epic adventurousness. "He has this ability," muses Green, "to move between all these worlds." He also has a Protean ability to keep creating in all of them.