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By Ray Stern
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By Stephen Lemons
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"I was a different person when I returned to the street," he says. "I started to look at things in terms of art. I started sketching on a pad during long stakeouts. I'd go into a dirty alley or something and say, 'Isn't this place cool?'"
Calderon's art evolved. He started taking Polaroids of people on his beat--smiling little black girls and their scowling mother, his partner, a street scene that struck him. At home, he'd sketch from the photographic images. The "knack" his late mother once cultivated had become an obsession.
A few years ago, Calderon says, he wandered into central L.A.'s Troy Cafe, an espresso bar/gallery. He showed the cafe's owner some of his charcoal drawings. To his shock, the owner offered him a one-man show, titled "People in Custody."
The gallery sold almost all of his drawings.
"It was cool," he says. "Now I was a professional artist, even though I didn't understand half the words the art people were using when they talked about my stuff."
@body:Dan Calderon's vantage point during the Rodney King riots became the catalyst for the paintings now on display in Phoenix.
"We listened to the King verdict during roll call," he recalls of the morning of April 29, 1992. "We all had a sense that something was coming down."
Not that Calderon had sympathy for King, not for a second.
"I know it looks like the KKK beating on the innocent black guy," Calderon says, "but he was a parolee and he knew what he was doing. Police use those sticks so you listen to them. I know, for an artist, this is a very unpopular opinion."
Later that day, Calderon was one of about a dozen cops near Florence and Normandie. Among the other officers was Lieutenant Michael Moulin, who Calderon says "probably hadn't been in a street situation in years."
A small but volatile crowd had gathered where the LAPD was trying to arrest someone. The mob started to pelt the cops with rocks, bottles and other weapons, Calderon says. Lieutenant Moulin soon ordered his subordinates to retreat to the police station.
"We've handled bigger than that many times," he says, shaking his head at the bitter memories. "But we usually don't have someone working with us who panics and runs. Lots of people became victims because we weren't there to help them. Once we backed up, it was a green light for the rioters to do what they wanted."
At the 77th station, Calderon and his peers stood by as radio calls for help flooded the airwaves. But Lieutenant Moulin had other ideas.
"He ordered us to head for the command post," Calderon says, "which meant we had to drive right past Florence and Normandie. I should have done a Star Trek and zapped him: 'You are out of control, sir.'" (Moulin later retired from LAPD because of stress.)
One of Calderon's paintings depicts what happened as he drove by the intersection. The accompanying text says: "The angry mob pelts cars w/ anything they can throw. Helpless citzs trapped in their vehs wave at us as we pass by. . . . They yell 'ofcrs help, help us please.'"
But Calderon and the others didn't stop. Instead, he says, Moulin issued another order: "I want all units to stay away from Florence and Normandie. If you get any calls from there, disregard!"
The street cops milled around for hours at the command post, waiting for new orders. "It was a doughnut hut for the chiefs," Calderon says. "No one was making any decisions. It was a helpless feeling."
With time on his hands, Calderon started sketching. His efforts weren't for himself, he says, but for his fellow coppers. He photocopied the drawings and tacked them up on a wall in the command post.
The next day, Calderon and his buddies from the 77th finally returned to the burning streets of South Central L.A. But more frustrations awaited.
One of Calderon's paintings shows how his "Cobra" team was ordered to guard an abandoned intersection. "We were told to make no arrests unless someone tried to kill you," he says. "No arrests! It was chaos."
Back at the command post later, Calderon experienced something that became the last of the paintings in his L.A. riot series. As he hopped over a table to grab a cold drink, Calderon says, Lieutenant Moulin yelled at him, "Hey, you idiot! You're going the wrong way! This is the entrance!"
The painting depicts the absurd scene, with wry text by Calderon: "Back at the Command Post, Lieutenant Moulin had become chow hall commander in his shiny new CP uniform 'unusual occurance [sic]' overalls equipped with matching ball cap."
@body:DeCompression Gallery's Michael Levine and gallery co-director Maria Asaro first heard of Dan Calderon and his art several months ago.
"The climate now is politically correct art, and Dan certainly isn't politically correct," Levine says, "but everything he puts into his paintings is a complete makeup of who he is. I don't have to agree with his point of view to think he wields as much power in his paintings as he does in his patrol car."
That's quite a notion, Calderon admits.
"I love to draw and to take pictures," he says. "That's a big part of me now. But I'm meant for the street. I'm meant to be a cop.