Coloring outside the lines

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L.A. native Cheri Pann is a self-described product of the '60s era of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. "I'm a very sexual person," she said, confirming that at least some of her youthful experiences endure. Dunno about her taste in music these days, but if she ever dropped acid, we can attest to the longevity of its effects.

Pann, 75, and her husband Gonzalo Duran, 71, are Venice artists who live and work in a house so outrageously accessorized it makes a trip on LSD seem like a trip to Victorville. Their Mosaic Tile House, as it is known, is a visually cacophonous edifice adorned with thousands of hand-crafted, painstakingly applied mosaic tiles, pop culture artifacts and painted surfaces created by people wholly unfamiliar with the concept of enough.

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Visitors may sample their more-is-more philosophy on tours they guide through their wonderland where you're not sure if that's a toilet or a sculpture, a kitchen shelf or a flying ceramic buttress, a screen door or a giant magnet where the neighborhood's silverware goes to die.

Even the garden is artily bipolar; orange trees and Swiss chard keep close company with a giant tiled fortune cookie bearing the illustrated wisdom, "Love is blind. But marriage restores sight"; tomatoes tower next to pot lids and coffee cups affixed to tall, twisted, elaborately tiled fingers; Dali-esque wine bottles are mooshed into the walls; and the back yard hot tub canopy is an homage to the Watts Towers, a jungle-gym mosaic squeezed against a fruit-bearing banana tree.

Pann and Duran bought the nondescript post-war tract house in 1994 with an eye toward expanding it into studio space. But they couldn't stifle the creative imperative that drove them, as Pann said, "to do something to make a really ugly house look beautiful."

They're still behind that wheel. This house has had so much work done it's the Cher of Palms Boulevard, but there are still a few inches of blank space left to beautify, and occasional repairs must be made to the broken elf ears and the loose marbles. The couple embarked on their merry makeover without a plan or schematic, and mistakes were made. "We were just playing," Pann explained. "We're still playing."

Despite the cheery palette, some of their games are dark. One was a commission by Duran's sister, a loan officer, who wanted Pann to make something for her work cubicle to reflect the negativity she felt about her ex-husband and boyfriends. So Pann created an untitled "construction," painting a bar refrigerator matte black and affixing to it ghoulish figures dancing on top. The frightful fridge returned to the Pann/Duran home after the sister's work colleagues complained.

Pann continued to work on the piece, filling the interior with a bunch of dolls given to her by friends. The construction is now a naked Barbie and Ken orgy on a pedestal just around the corner from the Beanie Baby wall, and next to a room where Pann's first painting hangs, a docile Impressionism-ish garden scene she did as a student and refers to as "thrift shop art."

Which invites the perennial question, what is art? Which prompted the visitor to ask Pann if she considers her home's wardrobe -- the mosaic tiles, the figurines, the functional gew-gaws -- art.

"I have a master's degree in art," she replied, possibly presuming that her visitor knew the difference between art and what she called the "giant tchotchkeville" that she lives in.

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The visitor was relieved. And confused. What the hell is that thing on the kitchen counter, under the ceramic guard snake?

"Oh there, it is," Pann said, grabbing an orange-handled knife hiding in plain sight on the hallucinogenically tiled counter. "Don't do this in the kitchen" she advised, sweeping her arm across the busy space. "You can't find the utensils."

If visitors to The Mosaic Tile House are at risk of succumbing to sensory overload, Pann and Duran are powered by the energy it generates like a perpetual motion machine. Who else but these two could possibly live, much less thrive, in an environment that seems to shape shift around every corner? Where in the world did they find each other?

At the artists' paint supply store.

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He worked there, she shopped there and if not love, it certainly was lust at first sight. She was on the rebound from a 22-year marriage and thought he was hot. Before she'd even signed the credit card slip she leaned over the counter and planted a wet one.

"He was so cute," she said, reminding her visitor of her proclivity for free love. "He's still cute," she said, 23 years later. "I still like kissing him."

Was Duran OK with her middle-aged love-child behavior?

"I turned the other cheek," he recalled, with a shrug. "And she kissed that one, too."

Pann, with a master's degree in fine arts, and Duran, who went to Chouinard Art Institute, display and sell, as well as create their art at home. Both paint, but also work in other media. Pann's early influence was, as she described, "rather austere Japanese art," and its severity here contrasts sharply with the neo expressionistic painting that has occupied her more recently. Duran's background is illustration, but he also creates hand-cranked sculptures he calls "automatons," such as one in his studio now featuring a fisherman (him) and a mermaid (Pann).

Asked if it has a title, Duran said, "'Man fishing'"; then, "'California'"; then settled on "'Save me, I'm an endangered species' ... that's the title du jour."

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To build their studios to their satisfaction, Pann took construction classes at Santa Monica College, and served as the general contractor. She erected the two-story walls herself, explaining, "It's not very hard; it's just screwing two pieces of wood together and getting up on a ladder. Since I'm good at the first, it was no problem." She grinned broadly. She does that a lot.

With five decades of art stored in the attic, with two studios of evolving artwork and a house that itself is a work in progress, you wonder if this happy sprite surrounded by Kool-Aid colors ever worries about fire.

Nah. "I don't have that kind of karma," Pann said, adding, "and I have good wiring." She grinned.

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Still, neither she nor Duran is the simple person a content disposition sometimes conveys. More than a few ominous images lurk in their work, and simplicity is not a refuge for people who live among baby dolls creepily worked into mosaics covering otherwise bright spaces. The world's complicated, and complication is an artist's currency.

One day Pann will be painting herself into a warmly colored portrait featuring birds of prey and snakes and satanic-eyed critters, and the next will lovingly stroke a banana leaf, try to remember if it's 14 or 40 varieties of the fruit and finally decide it doesn't matter. One day she'll tell you about her sleep difficulties (can anyone sleep in a house this loud?), and the next this tiny, horny senior citizen will work out at the notoriously steroidal Gold's Gym where, no doubt, she's collecting material: "It's like a Fellini movie in there."

Takes one to know one. Now showing, The Mosaic Tile House, starring and set decoration by Cheri Pann and Gonzalo Duran. Tours by appointment, $12, (310) 399-1469.

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

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