01/19/2011 05:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge at the Huntington Library

One of the best things about living in Pasadena is its proximity to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and weather that allows you to go there in shirtsleeves on a mid-January afternoon. Which is exactly what I did recently, not wanting to miss the Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge exhibition before it closes in February.

iPhone snapshot of the Huntington Gardens

I had never read Bukowski, didn't know much about him and had always (mistakenly it turns out) identified him with the Beat poets. This exhibition set me straight and whetted my appetite for more.

Poet on the Edge is drawn from the archive of Bukowski's papers as well as special items lent by his widow. You are greeted by a case containing Bukowski's manual typewriter, or "typer" as he called it and a quote: "All I need now is what I needed then: a desk lamp, the typer, the bottle, the radio, classical music, and this room is on fire."

Ten more cases are filled with manuscripts, broadsides, chap books, first editions, correspondence, photos, drawings, souvenirs from race tracks and other ephemera. There are letters from young women offering themselves to the by-then famous Bukowski. There is a video of Bukowski reading his work to and bantering with an enthusiastic audience, the bottle always close at hand.

The gift shop has a large display devoted to Bukowski: books, videos, t-shirts, mouse pads, journals and more. Resisting the urge to buy one of everything, but wanting to know more, I made a speedy exit. Once home, I downloaded John Dullagan's 2003 documentary, Bukowski - Born Into This, hoping to flesh out the portrait of the man.

Noir-ish black and white footage of Bukowski shot in LA in the sixties, the badly pock-marked face, the ever-present cigarette and bottle, Bukowski's own words and street bravado, as well as reflections by others who knew him, all add to the picture of a disturbed, but brilliant writer.

In one particularly poignant scene, Bukowski goes back to his childhood home in LA, into the bathroom where he describes how for years his father regularly beat him with a razor strop. His mother's response to the abuse was "your father is always right." Another disturbing scene shows Bukowski, obviously drunk while being interviewed, baiting his wife into a fight and kicking her off the sofa with his feet.

Curious, but not able to shake off my negative reaction to the sexism, alcoholism, and the glorification of it by others, I decided it was time to read Bukowski and see what the fuss was all about. I chose the novel Women, partly because I was curious about how Bukowski's misogyny would play out and partly because a quick web search told me that many consider it his best work.

Women, which is autobiography thinly disguised as fiction, is based on the period in Bukowski's (or Chinaski as he becomes in the novel) life when he is in his 50's and has finally achieved rock-star status. Young women are throwing themselves at him and he is not resisting, making up for lost time, experiencing what he imagines other men experience much earlier in life, but denied to him by an acute case of acne vulgaris, an abusive upbringing and a low life existence. Women, booze and writing fuel this phase of his life.

Chinaski eventually hits bottom:

What kind of shit was I? I could certainly play some nasty, unreal games . . . Could I keep on telling myself that it was merely a matter of research, a simple study of the female? . . . I wasn't considering anything but my own selfish, cheap pleasure.

There is redemption by the end of the book as Chinaski turns to the one woman he really cares about. We are left wondering, however, exactly how much redemption.

Bukowski's writing is raw, direct and gritty, and makes for compelling reading. He is brutally honest about himself and other people as he lives his life the only way he knows how. His lack of pretension and life on the edge are a slap-in-the-face counterpoint to the politically correct, sanitized environment of today. And in the end, as Bukowski himself says in the documentary, "forget the image, I have a heart."

Currently on View at Offramp Gallery


Click here to read the LA Times review.

In addition to five stunning new 40" x 40" archival digital prints that are exhibited in the Main Gallery, Anita has worked with two master printmakers to explore traditional photographic printmaking techniques. By printing the same image four ways -- as a halftone photolithograph, continuous tone photolithograph, photogravure and salt print -- the subtle shifts and changes that occur through these varied processes become evident. A continuous loop video, the mesmerizing Measure, made by Bunn in 2008, is on display in the Guest Room. The exhibition runs through February 6, 2011.

Cross-posted from Jane Chafin's Offramp Gallery Blog

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