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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Exit through the MOCA: Thumbs Up for Street Art by Brian Leiken, Guest Blogger

Banksy's Bat Papi
I don't like modern art.

Modern art doesn't have to be explained, it doesn't have to follow any rules or guidelines; modern art can be formless, shapeless, messy, non-sensical, even ridiculous.

If I were to write a blog with no paragraphs, no sentence structure and no standardized spelling it would be unreadable garbage, literate trash not worth the encrypted bits of data it's written on.

But splatter some paint on canvas, cover a painting in abstract geometric shapes, take a picture of a soup can, and suddenly it's "art."

I despise modern artists - these new age con-men that hide behind their pseudo scientific etymology that criticizes the viewer for not understanding their post-modern, post-minimalist, conceptual-realist, impressionist via post-impressionist, neo-expressionist movement.

The modern artist does not have to be "great," only to have others perceive them as "great"; their art requires no study or great skill - it's meant to be mass produced, copied, emulated. Modern art requires nothing on the part of the artist or the viewer: technique, style, and form are irrelevant; all that matters is how the art makes you "feel."

An eight year old, Autumn de Forest, began producing art pieces when she was five - she's already raked in $200,000. Doesn't matter if she's a child prodigy or if she's just lucky - people like her work because buying an 8-year old's art makes them feel "good."

Not even war has managed to escape the touchy-feely modern day art movement. In the early days of operation "Iraq Freedom" bomber crews would write epithet's on the sides of their bombs:"Take that Camel Jockey!" or "Hope you've got 72 virgins waiting on the other side, Mohammad!"

Reporters took photographs, there was an uproar, and the Air Force apologized, promising a quick stop to the practice of writing insults on bombs. It was evidently okay to blow someone up, just not to call them a name while doing it.

Better to hit me with sticks and stones and break my bones because y'know, names can really hurt me.

One of the newest movements in modern art is "Street Art," an art movement that started about twenty years ago off the streets of New York and LA.

Street artists are modern day surrealists that create guerrilla style art by placing their images on unsanctioned public space.

Many don't consider them artists at all, but unlicensed vandals who should be fined and jailed for spraying "graffiti" on public buildings.

Growing up with '70's and '80's pop culture, street artists don't appear to be interested in redefining art, but simply questioning its meaning by stating it doesn't have any meaning.

In other words, they delight in thumbing their nose at the establishment, especially the post modern art movement.

Last year, Banksy, the Andy Warhol of the street art movement, made a documentary entitled Exit Through The Giftshop. The movie was supposed to be a documentary about Banksy until he takes over the film and spins the cameras on filmmaker Thierry Guetta.

Although Thierry Guetta has no discernible talent, Banksy lends him credibility, transforming Thierry into Mr. Brainwash, a non-talented overhyped genius sensation. A couple testimonials, a write up in the LA Weekly, and Thierry's Brainwash originals transform into priceless gems worth thousands of dollars.

Bat Papi is my favorite.

Starting this weekend the LA museum of contemporary art (MOCA) put on the first major museum "Street Art" exhibition - Art in the Streets.

Like a midwesterner avoiding a vegan restaurant, the MOCA is the kind of museum I would never enter unless I wanted to make myself irrationally angry watching people ogle over puddles of dripping ooze; but for Street Art, I'll make an exception.

Street Art doesn't pretend to be anything; it is just as devoid of meaning as any other kind of modern art, except Street Art is both an incessant celebration of pop-culture and never ending mockery of the modern art movement.

My uncle Bernard is in town, so I decide to take him and my cousin Arlie to the exhibit. We park and Arlie pops for the tickets, $10 a piece.

After nearly running a couple of pedestrians over, we discover we're at the wrong part of the museum, we'll have to take a shuttle to the exhibit which is being held in another part of the MOCA downtown. Ironically this was the best thing we could have done because the line for tickets outside the actual event looks to be about an hour long.

Inside we are greeted by a mural of dead animals covered in doors that function like a macabre pop up book, when the doors are flipped "open" they reveal the animals interior organs. Brains, guts, the digestive system. People open the doors then scurry away in revulsion.

Looking out over the museum the entire building strikes me as a carnival. The MOCA's interior is covered in graffiti, stencil art, and posters with videos playing in the background.

It's packed with Hollywood hipsters wearing ironic T-shirts and coiffed hair, faces masked under thick McNamara glasses, bodies decorated with sleeves of tattoos, wrapped in so many lairs of irony one wonders if there is a person beneath the "look."

The crowd is an exhibit unto itself, young MILF's with adorable children who function not as kids but as fashion accessories, manicured metrosexuals, 5'1 lesbian couples with matching chain tattoos, unshaven intellectuals wearing leather jackets and sneakers, dolled up Asian girls being towed by their dopey white boy boyfriends, Echo Park Bohemians and vogue Westsiders who look like they rarely cross East of the 110, teenage taggers who drool over the cholo graffiti with wonder and envy.

As they say in LA, it's not an event, it's a "happening."

The art is as varied as it is bizarre; some of it I recognize because I've already seen it decorating the streets of LA for years; Shepard Fairey's Andre the Giant entitled "Obey" (he's also done the blue and red Obama poster), Invader's trademark Space Invader coming down to Earth, Lady Pink's Buff Monster - and of course Banksy.

Banksy's I Hate Mondays!

interior subway car two feet wide
There are ceilings hung with paper fighter jets riding skateboards above armored shogun warriors, disembodied arms spray painting buildings, cars pimped out with blue and pink chrome, a 3-D replica of an interior subway car two feet wide, a drum set just sitting out in the open waiting for anyone to play it, murals of cholo's drinking 40's and chola's wielding uzi's dressed as angels.

It takes me a moment to realize that much of the art isn't even on canvas, but spray painted or stenciled into the walls of the MOCA itself - someone is going to have a time cleaning this all up.

"I like it," Bernie declares grandly, "I like it because it's an act of free will. I just can't tell if they are doing it to make a statement or make a buck."

"Probably both."

"I normally hate museums," Arlie adds, "but this doesn't feel like a museum at all."

She's right, it doesn't feel like a museum. The exhibit isn't confined to the art on display, but is a part of the walls themselves, even the crowd feels like a part of the show. This is art not for the elite, but for the masses; subversive, irreverent, flippant - it requires no "specialized" training to appreciate.

Street Art is both a celebration and inditement of the billboards and advertisements that have become such a part of our architecture we can no longer imagine life without them.

I don't like Modern Art, but for Street Art, I'll make an exception.

Banksy's Police Beating Pinata

Copyright 2011 Brian Leiken

LA Teacher

Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, Special Ed teacher and author of three books for and about his students available on He's also penned I Went Into Teaching for the Money about his first year of teaching in LA. And best of all, he's my son:)

Crossed Out and Messed Up by Brian Leiken at

Monday, April 18, 2011

Greek Easter & Passover: Sharing Food and Feud

Traditional family holidays meant sharing food with a dash of feud.

I have memories of Easter with my original family and Passover with my acquired family.

Just as they gathered annually to celebrate their respective religious beliefs and distinctive holiday dishes, they also shared their personal differences.

My Greek relatives took turns hosting holidays: Christmas at our house; Thanksgiving at my uncle’s; and Greek Easter at my aunt’s home in Chicago’s South Shore. Greek Easter is typically celebrated the week after American Easter.

I recall entering my aunt’s house exclaiming, “Christos Anesti,” (Christ is Risen), hugging my cousins and enjoying the warmth of family bonds, celebrating our reunion since our last holiday together.

Like my Catholic friends, it was our tradition to fast before Easter and then gorge ourselves during a huge feast on Greek Easter Sunday.

Greek Easter was a banquet of mouthwatering spring lamb, mounds of creamy mashed potatoes, authentic Greek salad tossed with black olives and feta cheese accompanied by a bounty of side dishes laden across a long, narrow dinner table. I always tried to sit next to my handsome blonde, blue-eyed cousin who I had a secret crush on.

We crowded around, eagerly gobbling the women's speciality dishes to compensate for our week of  fasting. Though we stuffed ourselves, we always left room for the desserts, including baklava and my favorite powdered-sugar cookies (kourembiathes). And of course, the adults drank ouzo, Greek liqueur.

We looked forward to these family events with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.

What would our cousins look like since Christmas? What was the latest gossip? At what point would our mother and her brother have their annual argument which was part of the holiday ritual as well?

They had fought for many years, and a truce of sorts was declared for the sake of family during the holiday meals. The peace lasted throughout dinner; and then, on cue, the predictable and loud argument erupted.

They had contrary opinions on just about everything, and neither would give in to the other and remained in a resentful standoff until the next family gathering.

This "feud" ritual  following the hearty, celebratory meal would be re-enacted at the next family holiday dinner.

We cousins understood these family feuds and looked forward to being together for the future disarmament at Thanksgiving or Christmas. The coolness would last until then.

After my marriage, my Easters became Passovers.

For me, Passover rituals seemed solemn compared to the joyous Easters I remembered. During the Seder, we gathered to honor Jewish liberation from persecution and their suffering while enslaved.

All the dishes served had symbolic meanings, and the elders read passages to accompany foods that represented those difficult times.

I participated in the ceremony out of respect for my in-laws but couldn't identify with the occasion.

I couldn’t relate to the unappetizing gefilte fish, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. I came from another tribe and heritage.

I missed the celebration of my original family’s Easter holiday, even with my mother and her brother sniping at each other.

Though the traditions represented a contrast of cultures, customs and foods, the families did have some other "rituals" in common.

My mother-in-law and sister-in-law didn’t get along either, and their cold silences were felt by everyone throughout these obligatory occasions.

The official Passover ritual was strained by their dislike for each other. It, too, was predictable like my mother and my uncle.

It wasn’t expressed loudly like my Greek relatives. After the meal, the women separated from the men and gathered in the kitchen.

By this time, they could no longer tolerate being around each other. The dispute would be acted out as criticism and complaining usually over small things.

Like my original family, my acquired family understood these matters and accepted them. It was part of the ritual of sharing food and feud. Pass the lamb and gefilte fish. Opah! Oy Vey!

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Sweet by Yucel Tellici

Matzah for Passover photo by Alex Ringer

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dana's Hollywood Birthday by Guest Blogger Brian Leiken

For most of us, our birthday is an excuse to get together with family and friends, have a good meal, open a few gifts and blow out some candles on a cake.

After turning 21, I became indifferent to birthdays, all I had left to look forward to was may auto insurance dropping at age 25, and I just didn't see any point to celebrating getting older.

Sometimes I've woken up and actually forgotten it's my day of birth until I get a call from my mother wishing me a "Happy Birthday."

Dana is my diametrical birthday opposite; my sister will often begin planning her birthday party weeks in advance, sending out evites to hundreds of potential attendees.

Her birthday is not commemorated by a single party, but a week long event of exquisite dinners starting usually around the 4th of April which culminates on her "official" birthday in either a swank Hollywood hotel or trendy club on April 10th.

Last year Easter fell on the 4th.

Dana upstaged Jesus.

This year I get an email from Tracina, Dana's co-producer, that they are holding a birthday party for my sister at the Hudson, one of those versatile bars that simultaneously appeals to both men and women.

The Hudson may look like a converted train box car on the outside, but on the inside it's a meeting place for the society of good looking white people with great cheek bones, a pit stop for hipsters before they head out to the even trendier and swankier clubs in West Hollywood.

In addition to celebrating Dana's birthday, they'll also be watching a live broadcast of her latest TV show, Marcel's Quantum Kitchen, with both the cast and crew in attendance. Given the last minute invitation, Dana isn't expecting a big crowd, but then this is just the opening birthday event.

Phil's got an invitation, he lives nearby so I stop by his place and we walk over. Like most trendy Hollywood bars, at the Hudson you've got to pay for valet or spend 15 minutes in a vain attempt looking for free parking before finally giving up and paying the $6 for the valet.

The Midwesterner in me would rather walk, so we decide to hike the distance, it would be a pleasant stroll except for the deluge of white people walking their dogs.

We pass by a pair of dog owners making small talk about their breeds, and Phil unsuccessfully tries to hide his disgust.

"I swear to God the worst part about owning a dog is all the banal questions you have to suffer through. How old is your dog? What breed is your pup? Where do you have him groomed? It's the worst."

I nod in sympathy. Freaking white people and their small talk.

Phil and I have got better things to discuss, like the press release for his new novel, Ass Eyes in a Sea of Spec,

As we debate the content of the press release, we pass a dog owner walking his poodle; he fires off a withering glare. We're not Weho material walking pampered dogs that spend their days in doggie day care; we're writers.

There goes the neighborhood.

We get to the Hudson early to enjoy the last vestiges of happy hour. Fifteen minutes and two drinks later, both of us are in a better mood. I ask Phil if he were a drink, what kind of drink would he be?

"Probably a beer. Hoppy. Takes some getting used to, but after a while you'll love it."

"Rum and coke." I reply. "Sweet, easy going, piratey."

Marcel and the cast from his show arrive but Dana's nowhere in site. It's after seven, but Dana will never be on time for her own party - in LA that's simply not done.

I walk over and say hello to the cast; it's the third time I've met Marcel, the first being my 39th birthday where I made a request to my sister to have him cook me a dinner at Bazaar.

Calling Marcel a "cook" is like naming Einstein a "mathematician"; Marcel is a gastronomic force of nature, his kitchen a culinary laboratory.

Marcel's Quantum Kitchen (MQK) is a reality TV show ostensibly about a Hollywood catering business, but the heart of the program is observing Marcel in his kitchen concoct dishes that defy the laws of culinary physics.

Noodles created out of blended wine, foie gras wrapped around cotton candy, desserts cooked with liquid nitrogen that cause smoke to billow forth from the mouth and nose - it's not cooking but science, or what Marcel refers to as "molecular gastronomy."

Originally a contestant on Top Chef, Marcel had developed a reputation for having an "attitude"; for being a vicious perfectionist with no empathy or pity for "lesser" cooks.

But I've tasted his cooking; its like eating a Picasso. I shake his hand, Marcel beams.

Chef, buddy, and fellow cast member Jarrid is sitting next to him. Covered in tattoos and wearing a leather jacket, Jarrid looks like he belongs in the Hell's Angels. He exudes almost manic energy; I bet he was pegged with ADHD as a kid.

I sidle up next to him. "I heard that while you were working as a bus boy at Bazaar you stole a prep chef uniform and showed up the next day pretending to be one of the cooks. Is that true?"

Jarrid laughs. "Yeah, I wanted to learn how to cook, and it wasn't happening fast enough, so I just took one of the uniforms that had gotten back from the cleaners and showed up early the next day.

I started prepping and it was like a month before anyone figured out that I wasn't a cook, I just wanted to learn. Marcel knew, but he didn't care. After the boss found out, Marcel just took me in and now I work for him."

"That's amazing."

Jarrid shrugs. "Anytime I've wanted to do something, I just went out and did it. That's how I learned how to be a circus performer, fire eater, and trapeze artist."

I try not to gape. He was a circus performer? "Isn't that scary?"

"Anytime you do something new it's scary, everything's scary. But you just go out and do it."

My sister arrives, she's just had her hair and make-up done and she looks like a movie star.

 "Would you believe that the guy who was doing my make-up was a former contestant on NEXT?" she exclaims.

 "I remember producing him and he was quite the prize, I mean they all wanted him. I was just afraid he was going to make me look like a drag queen."

"You look great, Dana," I reply. I'm a little surprised she isn't wearing a tiara, but then it is early. "Where's Christos?"

Up in San Francisco, but he had me bring wine." Dana withdraws a couple of bottles from a small winery located in Napa valley. We uncork it and it's delicious.

"If you were a drink, what kind of drink would you be?" I ask.

"Champagne," my sister answers.

I nod; my sister probably would be a bottle of champagne, sophisticated and sparkly. We order food and I devour a burger and sweet potato fries. It's one of the best burgers I've ever had, but then I'm really hungry and I am a burger whore.

A willowy woman with great cheek bones arrives; she looks like a model. Phil asks who it is. I'm not sure but I think it's Marcel's super hot model girlfriend. I ask Dana.

"Oh, that's Shannon. She's Marcel's girlfriend; they met while she was modeling for the show."

I love it when I'm right. To get a woman like Shannon you'd have to be some kind of culinary genius with his own TV show. My sister didn't settle for anything less than 007; I'd date Christos and I'm not even gay.

"I was expecting a blog about the last party, but instead you wrote about your car!" Dana exclaims. "I still think you should name it "Teacher's Pet!"

"I'll write about this party next, I just need a couple of photos as proof I was here."

You need proof?" Marcel calls out, waving me over.

 "C'mon then, let's take a photo."

We pose and I give my patented "thumbs up and wink" - Arrggh! Marcel picks up on it immediately and mimics it.

Dana begins opening gifts. I haven't gotten her anything yet, because I've learned its better just to ask what she wants.

Phil has brought her a Buddha board, a stylus that you paint with water that creates images, then over time disappear allowing you to use it over and over again.

Dana claps her hands in excitement. "Where's your gift, brother unit?"

"I decided to wait."

"Phil got it right. Good job, Phil."

I try not to glare. "Yeah, good job, Phil."

More people arrive; many of them people Dana has worked with on other shows. My sister has a vast network of reality TV show contacts; it's one of the reasons she is so successful at both finding work and getting shows produced.

The Tonight Show, Howie Mandel, Beyond Chance, The Best Damn Sports Show, Christopher Lowell, NEXT, Ace of Cakes - there's more but I can't remember them all.

Dana's birthdays are more than just a celebration; they provide her an opportunity to network; it's one of the reasons why it takes a week for her to get through her birthday.

Other than Facebook how else is she supposed to keep up with all these people?

The staff changes the channel on a big screen TV over to MQK but there's a Laker game on and the bar is packed; I can't hear a thing. As soon as the show starts, the cast and crew cheers; I try listening for half a minute before giving up.

Dana arches an eyebrow in my direction, annoyed I'm not watching the show, but then hardly anyone is.

The Lakers are playing the Utah Jazz and are on the verge of making a come back; the bar is filled with jubilant cries of exultation that drowns out any conversation more than two feet away.

At least until Kobe drops the ball with two seconds left and loses the game (I love it when the Lakers lose), but by this time MQK is almost over.

I find my attention diverted between watching Marcel on screen, then switching back to glance at him in the bar; which one do I watch? TV Marcel, or flesh and blood Marcel? The same goes for the rest of the cast: Jarrid, Robyn, and Kevin.

Watching someone on TV while being able to simultaneously talk to them creates dissonance in the brain. How do I know which one is real?

We sing Dana happy birthday; there are cupcakes and she blows out a pair of candles. She's completely in her element, laughing, working the room as her friends and co-workers pay homage to the young woman who has become a celebrity in the nebulous world of production.

The only thing better than being a star is being a star maker; and my sister has the contacts, experience, and creativity to make it happen. If most people in Hollywood are talk, Dana is one of those rare few who can actually make it happen.

Breast cancer didn't stop her, it wasn't even a yield sign, just a speed bump that barely slowed her down; she managed to produce MQK while going through chemotherapy.

Like a gambler rolling straight 7's at the craps table, people surround my sister in the hopes that some of her luck will rub off on them.

Beautiful, fearless, exuberant, Dana is a phenomenon, a Hollywood singularity that continues to beat the odds because successful people like my sister generate their own luck.

If I had a motto it would be something like, "It's kind of crappy, but it's free," or "Send those squabs to Davy Jones' locker!"

But my sister only has one motto: Make it happen!

Before I head out, I kiss her on the cheek. "I better still get a call on my birthday," Dana warns.

I nod. Woe unto those who forget my sister's birthday. D-day is not June 6th.

D-day is April 10th.

Happy Birthday, Dana.

Make it happen!

Copyright 2011 Brian Leiken

LA Teacher

Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, Special Ed teacher and author of three books for and about his students available on He's also penned I Went Into Teaching for the Money about his first year of teaching in LA. And best of all, he's my son:)

Crossed Out and Messed Up by Brian Leiken at

Friday, April 1, 2011

Homes: The Way They Were

There’s a scene in the movie, The Way We Were, where two men are sharing “best of” memories.

Inspired by that scene, I am remembering the many homes of my life and their “best of” moments.

Though I have lived in many places, not all of them felt like home. The ones that I think of as home were those where I felt connected to my surroundings. These are my “best of” home memories, “the way they were.”

First home, early childhood in a multi-ethnic Chicago apartment complex where our playgrounds were asphalt and concrete, alleyways sandwiched between brick buildings, underground storage basements and a large empty, weed prairie.

I always dreamed of having a real backyard with flowerbeds like my aunt’s old Chicago house in South Shore.

Best memory: climbing the advertising billboard's wooden scaffolds on the State Street side of the prairie to get a great view of sparks flying when the boys threw cans on the streetcar tracks, a game for city kids.

Second home, teen years in the south suburbs of Chicago, in working class Dolton, where we finally had a yard where my mother hung the wash to dry on a clothesline that doubled as our theatre curtain, a blanket attached with clothespins, for our backyard plays.

Best memory: the fir tree my mother planted that grew taller than our house and became a giant Xmas tree every winter that we lit for all to see.

In my married home 20’s to mid 30’s in Eureka, a central Illinois bedroom community of churchgoing gentlemen farmers, home was a rambling farmhouse that we modernized on our semi-timbered five acres adjacent to neighbors who rode their horses past the cornfields up the road.

Best memory: my young children playing in a tree, one in the big tire swing and the other in the crook of the tree.

Second best memory: growing a vegetable garden for the first time and preparing the homegrown produce for my family and putting fresh cut flowers on the table from my own backyard.

My home on a cul-de-sac in Falls Church, VA, where some nights the sky was a planetarium with constellations that shone brightly as crickets serenaded us on a summer evening.

Best memory: watching our beloved cat, Frisky, roll around in the ivy while I rested lazily with a book in the hammock slung between two giant White Oak trees.

Last home in an apartment townhome in Marina del Rey overlooking the channel, watching the moon play on the water with the shimmering lights of boats and distant planes looking like UFOs blocking the stars as they descended into LAX.

Best memory: walking the boardwalk piers between the slips of the anchored sailboats and yachts during a crimson sunset, almost as much pleasure as strolling the beach a few blocks away.

Home today in a condo overlooking a former golf course in Phoenix.

Best memory: drinking my morning coffee while I watch a hummingbird pause for a sweet drink at the feeder just above the orange tree.

All of the home bookmarks are where I felt centered. They are the places that are always with me and are the “best of” memories.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 -2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Welcome banner by Billy Alexander

Tree photo by Sue Byford

Hummingbird photo by Tiffany Clark