Sunday, April 21, 2013

Marthe Aponte and Aboriginal Art

the sure hand and open heart of a modern master -- or, "Come on in, the water's fine!"

AVC's French teacher Marthe Aponte is a woman of many talents. Based on her work under Jacques Derrida at U.C. Irvine, she understands the difficult and subtle linguistic theory of "Deconstruction" better than anybody on campus. (Her closest rival might be Santi Tafarella, in the English Department, or Nicelle Davis, also in English. When he first arrived at Irvine from Yale, Derrida was all everybody talked about, and I went to some of his lectures but confess that mostly I walked away baffled. His secretary though once tried to steal my office desk, so he and I were rivals from the start.)

For Marthe Aponte, her students in French learn how to have very very good accents, while those classes are further enriched by her cross-cultural Caribbean perspective, since Ms. Aponte taught in Venezuela as well. For Professor Aponte, languages are not just bundles of grammar and rules, but also are delivery mechanisms for expressing the full potential of the human spirit.

We can see attitude that in her solo show up now in the AVC Art Gallery.

(Note to others: please don't touch the art!)

Encouraged initially by Warren Scherich and other local artists, Marthe has developed a substantial body of work in a relatively brief period of time. This show then have several messages. One is the formal beauty of the pieces themselves. Another is a comment on scale and viewing distance; Aponte's art has one kind of structure and elegance when seen from across the room, and then opens up (like a close-up photograph of a flower or a drop of milk) to have other, even more beautiful, worlds hidden inside. Look at this close-up shot:

Here are some more pieces, as seen being studied at the opening reception.

And here now is a more detailed look at the surface texture itself. Isn't this just amazing? You can get lost inside of these worlds within worlds within worlds.

Another message of the show is one of encouragement and invitation. While I am happy to enjoy her pieces and want to talk her about their connections to larger artistic movements, I also think the show just reminds all of us that we do not have to "be" one thing. Marthe could have said, oh, I am too busy to make art, or too old, or too intimidated, or I have too many committee meetings. Instead, she is like a person willing to swim to Antarctica from the Pier at Santa Monica: she just closed her eyes and jumped into the water.

The results are amazing. To have such a rich and substantial solo show as is up now speaks not just to her talent, but also to her courage, and to the ways in which she is modeling a rich, creative life for the rest of us. I write every day (one to ten hours a day, in fact) but often wish I could do more with photography. Here's a recent shot of mine that I like, of a young Joshua tree spike.

I shot it one day and didn't like the results -- the lighting was off, but it was out of focus because I was holding the camera up over my head so put the truck in 4wd and went back on this same trail a second day, this time bringing a ladder. I do take photography seriously, and would like to practice is it every day. Even so, I hardly am ready for a solo show, and never even really thought that I could "deserve" one. Marthe Aponte has lit a fire under me: now I want to make not just more art, but much better art, on a sustained visual theme. It's as if she already swam to Antarctica and is standing on the shore, wrapped in a duvet, waving at the rest of us --- "Come on over, it's not as far as it looks!"

She also reminds me how much our recent visual culture still has to offer. When I look at her large, bold expanses of direct red, I am returned to my childhood pleasures of coloring a blank page with markers or crayons, and to the simple honest pleasure of color as color. It of course calls to mind Rothko, who famously said, when asked about the ideal viewing distances, that he wanted a person to get right up close --- to stand no more than six inches away, in order to fall into the color field completely.

One Los Angeles- (and recently, UK-) based artist who also celebrates color this way is David Hockney. I went to his huge show in London at the Royal Academy last year, and he deserves the reputation he has. (That show had over 700,000 visitors, limited in part by tickets, which had sold out. Longer hours or a bigger venue, and the number could have doubled.)

Hockney says --- and the Aponte show verifies it too --- that color has meaning by itself, even if it's a bit askew from so-called normal reality. Here's a small detail of a much larger panorama of a veranda in Mexico.

Getting up close to Marthe's work also brings to mind that most cliche and yet still-interesting of mid-20th century artists, Jackson Pollock.

Of course the main visual tradition she wants us to connect her work to is that of recent (1980 and after) Australian Aboriginal painting. See for example this piece, "Five Dreamings" by Michael Nelson Jakamarra and friends.

It may not be clear in the blog, but the colors are built up out of small dots, sometimes applied with a Q-tip. This compressed visual narrative tells many stories at once: it is a topographic map of landscape, it is a comment on Australian ecology, it is a family history of clan boundaries, and it's a retelling of a creation myth. Some of us may have seen Biblical art, showing a saint's death or the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, but those works rarely incorporate as many layers as an Aboriginal piece manages to include.

Clifford Possum Japaljarri -- and even his name makes me envious --- includes dingo tracks, a man killed after a fight and chase, territorial claims to water holes, and clan totems, all in the same unified visual field. (There is more of course than just that; see Peter Sutton's "Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia" for a much fuller explanation of the implied narratives and sudden joys of pieces such as these.)

When these paintings first came to L.A. I remember being utterly transported by their overall cohesion and fresh visual look, as well as admiring the minute parts from which they are built.

AVC has something like that now with the Aponte show. Here is another close-up shot. Christine Mugnolo and I were joking that this level of detail would drive us batty. Yet Marthe makes it look not only effortless, but inevitable.

Others think so too; her opening reception was bursting with curious, excited people.

One of the things the AVC Gallery does well is to provide music at openings; the art piece in the background here is a bit blown out (my camera doesn't like the hot spots created by the gallery lights), but we can admire the musician's vest: he certainly fits his visual environment.

This leaves us to ask Marthe one final question, but it's a big one.

It's great that you have come this far . . . what's next?


The Antelope Valley College blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and does not represent the views of the District or the Board of Trustees. Hood can be reached at

Friday, April 5, 2013

How to Crash a Class

advice on getting the classes you need....

This post is going up on the Friday of spring break, which means that there will be a batch of second-eight-week classes opening up on Monday.

Many of these are full (on paper) and many have full wait lists, but on average, these late-start classes are a bit easier to crash (to "get into," even if not on the wait list) than first-half classes are. That's because by now, people's interests have changed, their cars have broken down, their memories have gone ka-ploooie, their bosses have become tyrants, or their student loans have been rescinded. Any number of factors come to play, but the fact is, of the people both formally enrolled and those wait listed, more won't show up for a second-eight-week class than usually don't show up at start-of-term classes, which in turn means more seats open up for folks just trying randomly to get in.

Even so, some strategies are more successful than others for getting the class you need.

Let's admit one thing up front. If you're already going to AVC and in fact, already have a full schedule of classes, the system or structure of the place makes sense. For that student, if you see this kind of sign . . .

. . . it makes some kind of semiotic sense. If you're new to the campus, though, the sign probably says this:

. . . which is to say, it's an example of what in technical writing is called "COIK." That stands for "clear only if known." A badly written set of directions about how to change an oil filter on a car may make sense, but only if you already know how to change an oil filter on a car.

So I think most administrators and faculty "get" that you're a bit confused, a bit unsure. The invisible rules of the campus are not yet known to you. And you maybe feel a bit anonymous, a bit like just a number in a line.

In the fall especially, AVC does try to have "first week welcome booths" set up around campus, where the lost and the unsteady can get a bit of friendly direction. We don't have the infrastructure to do that all the time.

So that means to crash a class, you'll need to figure things out on your own. That's okay: it's not that hard. It comes down to five guiding principles.

Be Clear
Be Polite
Be Persistent
Play to Win
Go to Plan B

In essence, you need a favor, and as with any rhetorical situation, that means thinking about it from the audience's point of view. It's not about what you want, it's all about making sure the person you are talking to gives you what you want, which may mean reconfiguring your approach. Let's see how that works.

(1) Be clear.

If I get an email from student x (from now on, let's call Mr. X by his first name, my hypothetical student, "Bob"), and if that email says, "kann i crash ur english class????" --- and you think this is an exaggeration, but it's not --- then I am going to hit delete and move on. That's because Bob is wasting my time. I get 200 emails a day, and if Bob isn't smart enough to figure out that I am in charge of more than one class, then to heck with him, I have got to move on. I cannot get into some kind of lengthy email exchange asking Bob to specify WHICH class that he's asking about.

Instead of that, Bob should ask by class time, day of week, AND crn number for any class he is asking about. While loads vary, some teachers have up to 7 classes, and no interest in playing "guess the crasher's intentions." If you are not clear about who you are and what you want, you're at the back of the line already.

(2) Be polite.

In Europe there's a lingering formality behind  and respect for university professors, and a proper salutation for certain teachers is "Herr Doktor Professor," which is to say, Mr. Dr. Professor. It sounds odd to American ears --- we are so plain Joe and all --- but makes sense. In the humanities in the U.S., even if somebody goes straight through and gets a B.A. in four or five years, then the M.A. is still two or three years past that. In the humanities, the average length of time a person needs to get her or his Ph.D. is eight years past a B.A. Then there is a year or two or five of part-time teaching until a tenure-track slot opens up, and then at AVC, to achieve tenure is a four year review process (and even longer at CSUN or UCLA). The student trying to crash the class is dealing with somebody with an extraordinary amount of education, and that person deserves some acknowledgment. They have perhaps spent longer in preparation for an academic life than your doctor has, in getting ready for a medical career.

So when Bob emails me and says kann i crash ur english class???? he is making several errors. One of those is that he's treating me as if I am one of his best buddies with whom he texts regularly. I am not: I am somebody who has published nine books and whose graduate program was, at the time, harder to get into than Harvard Medical School. I do not need for Bob to fawn, but I do expect Bob to say please and thank you and to use the same tone of voice he would use with a judge, a medical doctor, or an elderly uncle from whom he wishes to borrow a substantial amount of money. Show me at least some medium amount of respect.

Conversely, as an instructor, I really don't want to listen to your life story. Do not email me with nonsense about how you only need one class to graduate (mine), since among other things, it pisses me off: I happen to think that English 101 is both interesting and essential, and if you brag about how you did everything possible NOT to take it, that will not endear you to me. (See above, "audience.") And saying that you are trying to get into the nursing program is no better: guess what, every third person in the Antelope Valley is trying to get into the nursing program.

Especially bad, rhetorically, is to announce a long narrative of incompetence: "Well, see, Hood, I did have the class, but then I never paid my registration fees, so I got dropped, but I didn't know it cuz I didn't check my email, and then I was going to come by and see you but my car got impounded because I never paid these tickets, and then my sister, I was going to steal her car and come to see you, but I forget where she lives--" et cetera. Again, you think it doesn't happen? Happens all the time. I soooo don't want to hear that stuff, you have no idea.

If there truly is an exceptional reason you need something (if, say, you're in a wheelchair, and my assigned room accommodates your need better than other classes you might crash), sure, of course, explain that. In general, be brief and don't tell me why you didn't pay your fees on time.

(3) Be persistent.

Instructors vary on how they handle crashing, but on average, in most classes, there WILL be an open seat or two eventually, and on average, most instructors use a modified lottery system. On average, most want you to be present the first day of classes of the new term, and then to come back a second day as well, once their "no show" slots are really just that, and not Bob's friend Joe just trying to find a parking place. Yet because systems vary, it makes sense to cover your bets. That would mean a pattern like this: the minute you realize the class you need is full, email the instructor involved. Teaching assignments vary; he or she may not end up doing it, but for now, assume the listed teacher is the right one, and contact her or him. No matter if you hear back or not, send a follow-up a few days before school starts. Most of our adjunct instructors do not have offices, and in summer, many of the full-time instructors are locked out of their offices, so if you don't hear back, it's not necessarily that the class is or isn't full or that the teacher hates you, it's that he or she may not even have access to an email account.

Next, go to the class. If the instructor has an office, you can try that before class, but otherwise, go to the room the class is held in and see what's up.


We'll cover this below but let me say it again, DO NOT BE LATE. If you are trying to crash, do not piss off the teacher by interrupting a class already in progress.

If on the first day you strike out, send a polite, short, follow-up email, go back on the second class meeting. Be polite but be persistent.

(4) Play to win.

That means you know where the class is being held, maybe even what the instructor looks like, what books you will need if you DO get in, and if you do or don't meet the prerequisites. Here's an interesting case: if I have a class with three no-show seats, seats that I can then re-assign to three crashers, and if I have (let's say) 20 crashers, then I go straight lottery. We go out in the hall and pick numbers from a hat. All 20 have some sob story or another about why this class is essential for their education. We can't use that, so I just go straight lottery. Okay, 20 people, 3 seats, and odds are not great but not impossible. I will say, "take out a piece of paper and write your name on it, picking a number between one and a thousand. Please hurry. One minute max. Hurry up, please." I want this to happen swiftly: the other 27 people who ARE enrolled are inside the classroom, waiting for the lesson to start. And of the 20 crashers, a surprising amount do not have paper and pencil ready. I can't believe it: you want to take a college class from me and you don't even have a pen? Give me a break.

Play to win: do everything you can to up your chances, including coming to class with the basic supplies.

Blame Sacramento, but the fact is, there are a lot of students out there who want the same thing you do, which is a seat in this or that required class. I've had 60 people trying to crash one English class. Play to win. Make sure the one person who gets in is you.

Last, what's your Plan B?

If the 9:30 a.m. Math 50 class has 60 people trying to crash, what's your Plan B? No point in waiting there: the odds have gone too badly against you. (Though I suppose if you could calculate odds quickly, you wouldn't need Math 50.) In any case, is there a 10 a.m. class? 10:30? What about an online class, maybe through another school?

At AVC, we now just run one creative writing class a semester, and we try to be fair --- if it is poetry one term, we want fiction or nonfiction to cycle around too. Even so, demand is greater than supply. We the way priority registration is set up now, athletes and Honors students and so on get first crack. The poetry class fills up way soon.

Plan B might be to widen horizons. Has AVC shut you out many terms in a row? UCLA Extension offers some really top-notch creative writing classes. Sure, it costs more, but at least you get in.

In my case, I also am running some creative writing events through the City of Santa Monica, in the Camera Obscura Building, 1450 Ocean. (Sometimes known as that, the "1450 Building.") That's good because course fees are low and you get to have dinner at the beach, afterwards.

Be polite, be persistent, play to win ---- and if that doesn't work, I'll see you at the beach.


The AVC blog is curated by Language Arts faculty member Charles Hood. The views expressed in this blog do not reflect the official position of the Board of Trustees nor Antelope Valley Community College District. Hood can be reached at