90 Minutes at the MFA

“The important thing is first of all to have a real love of the visible world that lies outside ourselves as well as to know the deep secret of what goes on within ourselves. For the visible world in combination with our inner selves provides the realm where we may seek infinitely for the individuality of our own souls. In the best art this has always existed. It has been, strictly speaking, a search for something abstract.” – Max Beckmann (translated by Q. Beckmann and P.T. Rathbone) from Letter to a Woman Painter (1948)

I am not often caught without a notebook and pen. They are comparable to an appendage – naturally just there. This proximity enables frequent use. On my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I challenged myself to not pull out my notebook, to just look. I was unsuccessful – Renoir shattered what little determination I may have had to stick to the challenge. For me, apparently, looking – soul-seeking – necessitates writing.

One may not immediately think of energy when they think of museums. Perhaps they think of white walls and long hallways and people speaking in too-long words and too-quiet voices. But, without a doubt, museums are full of energy – charged with it. Visitors are constantly in it – perhaps little stray sparks are what draw us toward one piece or another. They send out little invitations: Here, they say, walk through this doorway. Pause. Turn, slowly. Survey. Find the one that catches your eye and let it pull you into its undeniable gravity – there’s no point in fighting, something will draw you in and you will obey, observe, enjoy. Take it in one piece at a time: after all, you can’t see the world in 90 minutes.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883)

Pause. You are struck by the light, the color, the movement. You are caught mid-twirl with the woman. You can imagine heavy skirts, taste the smoky setting. Trees bend in the wind – or maybe not the wind, but the breeze of the twisting dress fabric. There is music and conversation. The air is thick with excitement – a woman tips forward on her stool.

The man (looking suspiciously like van Gogh) cannot take his eyes off of the fresh-faced, coy girl. The pair is on their toes. Their mid-step is forever captured in oil. The maybe, want-to-be, almost-and-forever lovers hold each other close. It certainly isn’t the worst way to spend an eternity: safely suspended, together. The painting waits for people to sit on the nearby bench and watch. It, too, sends out an invitation: imagine the inhale that comes at the end of the twirl, imagine the smiling eyes beneath the brim of the man’s hat, imagine fingertips on fingertips.

Imagine: eventually, in a foggy someday, the woman’s stool settles safely back onto the dusty ground.

Scratch, scratch, pencil on paper, canvas to hand to sketchbook – carefully copied. The noise guides you through the massive galleries, drawing you from one space to the next – one painting and sculpture and subject and place and feeling and thought and not-quite-time-machine to another…

All the way to Pollock.

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Jackson Pollock, Number 10 (1949)

Here’s a challenge: trace it. Pick a drip, isolate it, follow it. Don’t get dizzy – don’t get too close. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Relax – it’s all in the flick of the wrist, flick of the paint can, flick of the eye following frantic motion frantically. Take a step back so you can see the whole image, all the way to the edges. Feel it out. Feel it. Can you decipher this drip-calligraphy? It is an unlimited, although not always easily-accessible, language. Try to learn it. Become bilingual – say you can speak energy disguised as paint on canvas.

Nearby, a few Picassos are mislabeled. There has to be some metaphor there, right? Something about the superiority of the image? Some condemnation of the crutch of a label?

Remember following that Pollock paint drip? Did it have a name? Did it need one to have a soul?

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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.

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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

 

Making Connections

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Light string by Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea

Art is about connection. Connecting ideas and stories and people and more art. These connections can happen serendipitously.

For example, at the Whitney Biennial – among all of the clamor over VR violence and questionable portraiture – stood a quiet alcove. Across from the gaping mouth of Anicka Yi’s video room was a classic white box gallery space containing six brightly colored canvases. These paintings by Shara Hughes were vibrant, abstract, and full of life. They made me stop and sit for a moment on a bench in the center of the space. I paused. The next day, I stumbled across another Shara Hughes show at Rachel Uffiner Gallery in the Lower East Side. Engagement, then a second, unexpected opportunity.

Visual art is, of course, associated with the eyes. But it can connect to all of the senses.

Sound was also featured in the Biennial, in various ways. There was the awful sound of skull on concrete in Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence , on the other hand there was the calm voice of the narrator in Anicka Yi’s The Taste Genome. Plus the glorious hum of museum goers, quietly discussing, debating, dissecting.

Taste. Following the Biennial, I went to David Zwirner, where a new Felix Gonzalez-Torres show was up after the recent change in representation. It is undoubtedly the best gallery show I have ever experienced. Experienced – not seen – because I did not simply exist in the space, I participated. I bent down and plucked a sweet, minty candy from the pile of Ross in the corner of the upstairs gallery space. It was hard and real on my tongue. Substance from substance.

And touch. In that same show I walked through a curtain of beads. I heard them click against each other and I felt their weight shift around me and over me as my body disrupted the solid but shifting barrier. There were blue curtains, too. Light and thin and airy, they covered the windows in a long room upstairs. I could imagine them flowing in the breeze if the windows were open. I could imagine the fabric – smooth on my fingers.

My pen was blue, too, that day as I wrote what I saw. I touched it. I felt it.

Smell is tricky. I wasn’t knocked out by Pope L.’s bologna at the Biennial – it was disappointing, in a way. But today I spent all my time among art and people that love it. Young museum professionals, as we connected in museums. Together we looked, and then we smelled through time – experiencing Ancient Rome through six bottles (like Hughes’s six paintings those few weeks ago) containing ghosts – from flowers to fish sauce. Along the way we talked and listened, too.  We touched – with a handshake our connections expanded. All of our senses worked today.

Feeling needs to be distinguished too. It is different from touch. Feeling is the most important sense in connecting with visual art. Maybe feeling is a well-placed bit of dismembered metal on a wall – a Trigger, left by Puppies Puppies as subtly as a landmine. Or maybe it’s those curtains – beads and fabric – blue and blue. Maybe it’s the way color can get wrapped up with a person, so blue becomes love. Maybe it’s taking that moment on that bench in the center of that white room broken by Shara Hughes’s fantasy environments.

Art is about more than eyes. Eyes are a part of a larger body – your larger body. And it is made of so many connections.

 

Shara Hughes “Same Space Different Day” at Rachel Uffiner runs until June 25, 2017.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner runs until July 14, 2017.

Nick Cave “Until” at MASS MoCA

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Nick Cave “Until” is on view at MASS MoCA through August 2017 (massmoca.org/event/nick-cave-until/)

The first time I viewed Nick Cave’s work was at the Denver Art Museum in the fall of 2013. The show, “Sojourn,” featured perhaps Cave’s most well-known work: the Soundsuits. These large creations are built to envelope a person and turn them into something or someone else. They create protection and anonymity, but they are heavy and imposing – made of anything from sticks (as Cave’s first suit was) to stuffed animals or buttons. That show featured the suits on raised platforms so one could marvel at them  walk around them. Then you entered a room where there were videos playing of the Soundsuits in action – people dancing in them, or moving frantically and seemingly without order. If you  put on the accompanying headphones, you were assaulted with the sounds the suits made when they moved.

“Until”at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art was decidedly different. It is immediately apparent in the titles: Sojourn – a temporary stay; Until – also temporary, but suspended, waiting, liminal.

This apparent lack of definition continued in the experience of “Until.” Unlike “Sojourn,” this show was more immersive – truly an experience, not just a viewing. To see the work you had to get inside of it, unlike the Soundsuits at the DAM.

Viewers enter the space through sets of double doors and immediately see the warehouse-sized room that houses the installation. First there is color and light. Then there are questions: What are those things? What does it mean? As you step forward, down the stairs and onto the floor, onto the path between the hanging pieces, you are within the suspension, as though walking in a scene on pause. As you are in the space, you see that the hanging pieces are metal spinners – hundreds of them looking far more impressive than the usual one or two that one may see hanging over a patio. They move and rotate with the movement of air in the room, including the breath of the people that walk between them. Breath that moves the bullets and guns at the center of each spinner – making you a part of Cave’s consideration of violence and race. For a few minutes, as you wander along the path, you are covered and exposed. There is no real protection in there – unlike the full-body Soundsuits – yet from the outside it is difficult to distinguish viewers from the light and color and movement that makes up the rest of the sculpture. Cave puts you in the art, forcing you to see and pay attention, even if only so that you don’t step off the path, drawing attention to what you are able to see, both from between the gaps in the forest of spinners, and in the reflections of the metallic work itself.

Upon exiting the forest you come to the rest of the work: a raised garden that you have to climb a ladder to reach, underneath which hangs sparkling chandeliers; a huge, beaded net draped over half the room; a room with video projections of the Soundsuits layered and mixed so it becomes a kaleidoscope, and again you are inside of it, as the projections cover all the walls and the floor; and upstairs a wall of metallic, fringy, plastic being blown from behind by a fan – inviting you closer and closer.

Everything about this installation pulls you toward it and forces you to exist within it if you want to see the entire show. You become a part of the spinners until you climb up to the garden until you are caught within the net until you are off-balance among the videos until you come face-to-fringe until you look out over the show and witness it. Until you leave. Until it finally gets out of your head. Until a few years from now when Cave’s work will certainly resurface somewhere else for me.

Until then.

From the Mediterranean to Massachusetts: Empathy and Oplontis at the Smith College Museum of Art

The Pioneer Valley in Northampton, MA is an epicenter of political and artistic activity. In the heart of this vibrant community lies Smith College, and the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA). This college museum has been ranked among the best university museums in the nation, and has a collection of more than 20,000 works raging from ancient sculptures to contemporary video art. It is a great resource for Smithies like myself, as well as the community in NoHo and beyond. As a college museum, the SCMA keeps public engagement at the forefront – through both a range of marketing techniques and public programs such as free art making on the second Friday of every month, public and K-12 tours, and student programs such as the annual Night at Your Museum mini-gala.

For about the past six months I have had the privilege of being a staff member of the education department Smith College Museum of Art. In this job my responsibilities have included planning student events, setting up for public programming such as the aforementioned Second Friday activities, and designing and leading K-12 tours. These tours are perhaps my favorite part of the job, as they are when I get to most fully and dynamically engage with the public, whether through guided conservation, or other activities such as writing or drawing.

In addition to the permanent collection, this semester the museum is also hosting the show “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii”, and much of our programming is centered around this special exhibition. The show features pieces from both Villa A and Villa B of Oplontis – a city not far from Pompeii, that would have rested on the coast before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 BCE (and which now lay about a mile inland due to the resulting change in the coastline of the area). Villa A is the luxury villa – thought to be the summer home of the wife of Emperor Nero. The Villa featured at least 99 rooms, with innumerable fineries from frescoes and sculptures to items such as oil lamps and vases. Villa B is the working “villa”, though it really would have served as more of a place of trade, which made the luxury of Villa A possible through the production and trade of items such as wine, fish sauce, and olive oil. Villa B is also the site of 54 skeletons adorned with their finest – thought to be occupants of the villas or perhaps Oplontis more broadly, who died waiting for a boat that never came to save them.

This is Oplontis. During the run of the show the SCMA hopes to not only share the objects themselves, but also the stories of the artifacts and people from this place. Northampton is the third and final stop of this show, which has previously been installed at the Museum of the Rockies and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Many of these pieces have never been on display before, much less having been out of Italy. Due to the magnitude of this exhibition, and the fact that the SCMA is its only east coast location, it has a long run (February 3 to August 13, 2017), and a considerable amount of extra public programming, such as lectures and associated exhibitions at other sites, such as Smith’s own botanic gardens.

As both a Smith student and a museum staff member, I have been able to get a complete view of this exhibition: from watching the process of installation, through engagement with middle schoolers on tours, to both planning and attending Night at Your Museum and listening to the reactions that Smithies share with each other outside of the walls of the museum.

The Oplontis exhibition is installed on the first floor, in a gallery with glass doors and a large central window. This arrangement made it easy to peek in and see how installation was progressing as I headed into the education office through the two-week installation period at the end of January. Day by day the exhibition came together. Slowly the cubiculum of luxury Villa A appeared, as a life size recreation was installed in the corner of the gallery-turned-Villa. Behind it, a fresco wall developed like a jigsaw puzzle, with fragments that had been blown off in the explosion hung over a full-wall reconstruction of what the wall would have looked like. The edges of the fragments, like puzzle pieces, filled in the image of what once was.

Before the exhibition had even officially opened people were streaming in for member previews. Ever since the gallery has consistently had visitors. There seems to be a constant occupancy, if not by an official group then by museum members or other community members. This exhibition seems proof of human fascination with the past.

This fascination was demonstrated clearly to me in a recent seventh grade tour. The team of student educators divided up the fifty-plus students into our groups and off we went into the galleries, with the main event being the Oplontis exhibition. My group explored the second and third floors first – looking for images of deities, posing like sculptures, discussing Roman daily life and portrayals of it. From here we finished in Villa A and in B.

In Villa A we thought like the sculptures – giving them a voice by imagining what they saw as they looked out over lush gardens and the picturesque reflecting pool. We imagined standing by, watching the richest Romans visiting the villa, and seeing the enslaved people that attended them, their lives so controlled that they could only walk down marked hallways, whose zebra-striping was intended to hustle them along. Everyone then wrote speech bubbles for the sculptures. The seventh graders were – of course – most taken with the goddess Nike, whom they were all familiar with.

In Villa B we talked about the people. Instead of telling the stories of the objects, we talked about the lives of these ancient people. We talked about skeleton 27 – pregnant, found with precious jewelry. We talked about the Strongbox – an ancient safe/ status symbol that would have been positioned right at the doorway of Villa B. We thought about how big it is and what could be inside. We wondered why perfume and simple jewelry was found in this case with the elaborate locking mechanism, rather than its contents being the kind of riches found with the skeletons. We talked about sentimental value. We talked about modern values. Then, having thought about deities and about people and about objects and how to connect them all, the kids drew what they would keep in their own strongboxes.

In short, through these objects and their stories we tried to find empathy.

Museum education is about inquiry and empathy. It is about taking what we know and what we don’t and asking people to get in between those things and explore. It is about asking questions that we don’t have answers to, and answering questions in every way you possibly can. Education is about making connections. Inquiry: What do you notice? What do you think is going on? What in the work makes you say that? Empathy: the big question. The “aha” moment. The realization that the heirlooms found in the Strongbox are not so different from the things we want keep safe today. Those basic questions in the toolkit – the “what” moments – are just the start. They must be supplemented with conversation and patience and sometimes colored pencils in order to get to the big thoughts – the “why” moments, the “aha”.  Then you hope that those whats lead to more whys which lead to ahas, and that this process continues on and on – inside the museum and beyond.

 

This post has been written for a contest hosted by Museum Hack, whose mission is to engage museum goers through “Renegade Tours.” So, engage with this post – like, comment, and share! For more information on the contest, visit: https://museumhack.com/writing-contest/. For more information on Museum Hack, visit: https://museumhack.com/.