On Looking

In my day-to-day job, I find myself thinking a lot about how others see art. I spend time in the galleries with visitors; at my desk formulating programs that will connect with people and ask them to engage in new ways; or working on accessibility initiatives to consider those who we are not reaching effectively. I am often reminded of the importance of art viewing as not only a comfort, but a challenge, a wonder, or – sometimes – even a chore. At this particular moment, with many individuals home-bound during the COVID19 global pandemic, the experience of art viewing has been on my mind even more. What does it mean to connect to an artwork? I have been thinking about how I will recognize my privilege of getting to be with the art – how will I experience it, when I am allowed to next?

Throughout my time interning and working at museums, I have had the repeated pleasure of witnessing the processing of looking in those around me. As a student educator at the Smith Museum of Art, I designed and led tours for K-12 school groups. On a regular basis, I was awe-struck by the students. On some days they were so wiggly we used our bodies as a kind of tuning-fork – trying to match the artwork by stretching out our arms or legs. On other days the children seemed to access deep wisdom: I will never forget the experience of a 4th grade class debating the landscape status of an Ed Ruscha print. The eyes of a child, it seems, have not yet been clouded, they are not yet worried to be wrong. 

My grandfather has Alzheimer’s. His mind works in other mysterious ways. Across the country institutions are hosting programs for individuals with the disease, hoping that the art will tap into some deeper brain frequency, and allow participants to find comfort. There are foggy days and moments of clarity. It seems that each time I go back home to visit he is another step removed. I think of a Carrie Yamaoka work that was once on view at ICA called “crawl/ stretch 2”: a sheet of black reflective vinyl covered in resin, that looked like raindrops on a window at night time.

What does it mean to experience art without all of your senses – to watch a video without being able to hear the artist’s voice, or to touch a material without being able to see the full object? Rather than thinking of this as some incomplete experience, can it be resituated as a different kind of interaction? I think so – like closing your eyes during a meditation. 

I am a proponent of a teaching method called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which uses open-ended questions to foster collaborative conversation, and encourages participants to come to their own personalized interpretations of art objects. This epistemology creates space for unique backgrounds and experiences to build meaning individually and jointly, rather than asking for tombstone information (artist’s name, object title, year, intent) to be the foregrounded experience. I believe that this makes people feel welcome in front of an object, to be part of the work, rather than a passive onlooker. I wonder, though, about the value of not just slow looking, but also re-looking. What would those 4th graders say about the Ruscha on another visit on another day or in another decade?

I have the pleasure of looking at works over and over, using my Monday eyes or my Friday eyes, or revisiting a show in September or in December. I have the privilege of reassessing. Each time I visit an object I get to re-learn that process of looking, by responding with my new experiences, and being guided by what the object asks of me on any given day. Today, where does it want you to look first? What if you are the height of a 4th grader? What if you can’t hear the voice? Like each new visit to my grandfather, I approach the artwork with my memory of it, and have to build from there – what did I mistake last time? Why does it look so inarticulate today? What might I see that I missed before?

I have been thinking about my duty to look and look more closely, then return to look again. On same days, it feels like a game, on others an uphill climb to give an object my full attention. Now, sitting on my couch, working from home, unable to meet the public and try to experience alongside them, I face a new challenge of learning to look, and realize that the key is not the looking – the intense stare at an object – but the seeing, the presence of the artwork, the experience of being in a space with it. I look forward to the return, to re-learning my looking, as soon as I can. 

Arthur Jafa: Message Received

 

 

November 25, 2017 I saw Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC. At the time I was struck, wordless, unable to formulate a coherent thought about the video. Three weeks later I returned to the Hirshhorn and sat in the gallery for a long while, watching the seven minute video over and over. The gallery was a black cube – dark, with a few benches set back from the wall-sized screen.

The video was second-to-last in the Hirshhorn’s “The Message: New Media Works” exhibition, and when I eventually stood up and walked out I wished it were last. I wished there were a decompress room, a fainting couch, a net on which to fall and be caught for a moment – Kanye’s lyrics still echoing in my head, the tear-streaked face of a little black boy practicing putting his arms up for the cops burned onto my eyes like the sun flare image interspliced in the video.

But there was no pause except for a breath before the video started again.

Just like real life.

That day, when I had sat stationary and let the video play on loop before me, I found that even though it was the same artwork, I noticed different parts. It was like some clips had been taken out and others added – a trick of my mind as I noticed different things and tried to absorb as much of the content as I could. Before my eyes flashed images of love and dancing and pain and comedy and power and destruction and kids and icons… Joy and violence alternated, my processing was truncated.  I was breathless. I had chills. Time warped within the video, becoming syncopated with the rhythms of the song. Time warped between the videos, as other sound from the artworks before and after – separated by thin walls – bled into the room, seeping in under doorways like gas. Multiple voices rang out, then silence. Pause. Movement. A change of viewers around me – the group of men who had been standing in the corner left, the person who had been sitting next to me was replaced with another, a guard from the exhibition eagerly ushered in visitors and hurriedly told them about what he thought of the artwork. Play.

Jafa has been in the news a lot recently, from exhibition reviews to articles about his work and background to interviews in sources like artnews and Frieze (that one was my favorite). Each time one of these popped up over the months following my experience at the Hirshhorn I would sit down and think about writing something about the object, about Jafa, about anything even tangentially related to this gorgeous artwork. Every time I felt like my computer was staring at me rather than the other way around. The memory of the object would play in my mind, still catching me off guard and unprepared to say something. I looked and looked for the video online or in museum collections, but it doesn’t currently exist in the public domain; for now only shooting around the gallery and museum circuit like some kind of anti-morphine: amplifying, challenging, making you feel everything harder. Yet somehow still comforting.

Now, listening to “Ultralight Beam” on repeat as I write, I’m still not really sure what I have to say. With this piece, I don’t know if I’ll ever be. This one might be more about the feeling – the goose bumps racing up arms and down legs; the flash of images threatening to drive you into overload as they flash in a dark room; Kanye’s rich voice unsettling you like seasickness or love; other bodies scattered in the gallery, faceless but full to the brim with humanity, engaged with seven minutes of knife-sharp clarity.

 

The Message: New Media Works is on view at the Hirshhorn in Washington DC through September 30, 2018

Arthur Jafa: Love is the Message, the Message Is Death runs June 27 – September 30, 2018 at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston

A review of the Jafa artwork (and more) on view at the MCA Denver through May 13.

Color, Light, and Clouds: The Art of Thomas Wilfred

Here light is the artist’s sole medium of expression.

He must mould it by optical means,

almost as a sculpture models clay.

He must add color, and finally motion to his creation. 

Motion, the time dimension, demands that he must

be a choreographer in space. 

~Thomas Wilfred

How do you play light? How do you change noise, which is not-matter, into light, which is not-matter, and come away with an experience, which certainly matters?

In the charcoal grey, cave-like gallery space, ghostly, glowing forms draw you toward them. How can a form without mass have such gravity?

Part lava lamp, part screen saver, part soul trapped in a simple frame – the screens are opuses. This one, Counterpoint in Space, Op. 146 is an eternal smokey vapor trapped in a box. It ‘s like watching a sunrise through a puff of vape smoke: sweet and ghostly and just a little off-putting if you get too close. It is an always-shifting, rose-green, meditative viewing experience.

Throughout the exhibition there is a contrast of weightless, noiseless, changing color-forms, with the heavy wooden boxes that ground them, frame them, and ultimately allow them to exist. Here, a cage is a life source.

Track the light, follow the smoke. This is the world of a busy, multitasking mind – a dream-place built by a conductor of light. This is proof that light can be bent and moved and taught to behave, though it remains unburdened by its task.

At first glance there is stillness, then a gentle, bleeding, lazily drifting spread of brightness.

Wilfred believed that imagination was a concept, and that reality was the physical equipment which made it possible. The artist’s role is to make people believe that what they see on screen is actually a window; that the world of light and color and emotion and form captured in brief is all around us.

It’s all about laying back and finding shapes in the clouds.

 

Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC until January 7, 2018.

Rothko at RISD

“If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” ~Mark Rothko

Sitting on the floor (yes, the floor – despite the guard offering me a stool), looking up at the painting, it is imposing, but not overly so. There is energy here: an orange soul and white light. It is centered, but not balanced – a sickly greenish hue sneaks its way in, keeping the painting from being too powerful. It, too, is mortal.

But monolithic.

There is variation. A clear human hand. Finger prints (or maybe just pigment imperfections) mark the orange zone. Human. Touch.

Above, the white is a cloud. Frothy. Under the gallery lights, the pigment glistens.

The piece is fire and smoke. The red is an aura; it is embers: quivering, imperfect, uneven, clinging to life. Everything is fuzzy around the edges – like looking into heat. The white-red-orange feeling of the painting is dreamy, but in a desperate way; like waking up sweaty, clutching the receding half-memory of a running dream.

Brushstrokes run up and down and sideways. Indecisive, but with a clear mood.

The piece has a whole section of the gallery to itself: a rounded-corner space that draws you in – asking floor-sitters like myself to scoot closer. The reason for intrigue and contemplation of the work is clear. It is arresting. It burns with a crackling fever and gravity and gravitas.

Rothko isn’t usually my style, but today I couldn’t leave him alone.

RISDM 71-091

Mark Rothko 
Untitled, 1954 
Oil on canvas 
238.1 x 143.2 x 4.5 cm (93 3/4 x 56 3/8 x 1 3/4 inches)

Image and info from: http://risdmuseum.org/pages/channel_71091

 

Metamorphosis

You are the most beautiful thing I have ever felt.

Somewhere out there, a star laughs for you – it sings praises to your soul and illuminates the sky so you know you aren’t alone.

Somewhere in the Universe someone is thinking of you, wishing for you. Even if they don’t know your name yet, they want you.

Somewhere champagne pops and pink-gold sweetness crosses someone’s lips. Bubbles rise, and then tickle a throat as they descend. They are happy.

A book closes, chapter after chapter complete. There is a pause. A quiet thump of completion. A brush of the cover.

A voice rises from quiet, releasing nervous words. There is a pause. An excited inhale of air charged with possibility. A smile that sounds louder than the pounding of your heart.

Things change, but you don’t always see it right away. That little happy star can still be seen long after it has faded. Words stay, the shape of them caught up in your ears. Light becomes yellow pink blue grey. Light becomes light.

Where you are now, can you feel your breath entering and leaving your body?