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Divinity at the Art Museum

Jay was an older man, by my guess in his mid-60s. He was animated and fresh, bound with the youthful curiosity of a student just now discovering the world. I hadn’t come to the Toledo Museum of Art looking for someone to talk to but there I was spending three hours roaming the halls with him, discussing art with a lovely group of older women, and eating hor d’oeuvres with art students from the local university.

I met Jay while dining at the museum’s cafe. I was there to write a food critique–my subject Gouda and onion gnocchi. The dish itself was a new experience–a familiar tasting combo of saccharine and savoriness, and yet was a type of pastry I had never heard of before. I wasn’t blown away by it but I was thankful for having a new vegetarian meal to try.

Just as I finished eating I sat at my table alone sipping on the remainder of my lemon flavored gunpowder green tea, content and smug at having tried my first real food critique. As I drained my last sip of tea a tempered and quiet man’s voice interrupted my zen moment, asking me if he might ponder why I was here at the art museum. I turned my head to the table to my left and there he was, a kind looking eastern Asian fellow who was eating the same dish I just devoured but had the fancy to adorn his meal with a glass of red wine and a side dish of tomato soup.

“I’m here to see the Native American exhibit,” I said.

“It’s splendid,” he said with an approving smile. “Do you come here often?”

“Once in awhile. I run an art blog.”

“It really is a wonderful place.” He took a small cut of white bread and smathered it with a teaspoon size glop of butter. He dipped the bread into the soup and with closed eyes took a bite with what looked like pure delight. He then smiled and took a sip of his wine. “Do you dine here often?” he asked.

“I’m actually here because I’m writing a food review.”

“And what dish did you order?”

I told him I had ordered the same dish as he had to which he nodded with approval. He then invited me to sit with him if I didn’t mind. I was a little hesitant but company was something I’ve often starved for, and was happy to find another soul to communicate with.

“The gnocchi is a speciality of the chef,” he said. “He’s very proud that he makes it all from scratch. Though he uses a cavatelli machine. Just don’t mention you heard from me that he cheats.”

It was then we introduced ourselves. Jay was a child psychiatrist and an ameteur poet who had just won a competition. He was very humble about it all and I never felt the sense of an overblown ego. I mentioned I was a fellow writer, a rather shitty poet, but had the distinction of graduating from the local university with a degree in English. It’s a topic I’m not fond to share with everyone. I’m rather embarrassed by my degree to be honest and have it as a weight that has dragged from my neck, saddling me with student loan debt and the honor of feeling useless. But Jay would have none of this talk. He told me he had dreamed of getting an English degree as a teenager. His mother was an art teacher and he had always held an affinity for the written word. But his father was a public speaker, and with much wisdom, convinced Jay to go into the sciences. His voice hinted at a quiet melancholy over the whole affair but regained its composure when he restated an axiom his mother told him: “There eventually comes an age when you can’t learn the sciences, but art can be explored for a lifetime.”

The sobriety of that fact warmed me with comfort. I was a failed teacher–a protege of that art crippled by my bipolar disorder. I felt relaxed when I casually mentioned this during our conversation. To most that know me my brief flirtation with having a respectable and meaningful career is unmentionable, and when it is brought up is a source of bitterness and contempt for me. But Jay was understanding–a gift of empathy only a psychiatrist could possess.

Fittingly, Jay mentioned his own failures. He was recently divorced, a broken soul who found comfort in the arts and humanity in the company of like minded individuals.

The conversation drifted to our own tastes in art. Jay briefly discussed his own familiarity with the classical masters–the Rembrandt’s and Van Gogh’s–but what had never until only recently interested him was modern art. I mentioned my own love and hate relationship with the genre and how I always felt drawn to the abstract and seemingly indescribable. Jay felt the same but admitted he had a sudden change of heart as of only a week prior. There was a painting in the museum that he described–a work by a ‘Keh-tie’. I had no idea what painting it was but was intrigued to hear his thoughts on it. Just as I was about to ask for his own interpretation, Jay finished his wine and gnocchi and asked if I wouldn’t mind him showing me it. I felt my heart tingle at the idea and grinned and said “Yes!”

Jay fumbled through his wallet looking for a few singles to leave for a tip. He only had a 20 dollar bill and sighed in disbelief. I felt a call to arms to reach in my own wallet and fetch out a couple of ones but stood in despair because I had come with only ten dollars on my debit card to pay for the meal. I feel stupid and guilty writing this, but I had never even realized it was proper to leave a tip at a museum cafe.

Defeated, we left the cafe and made our way up to the second floor. Jay walked with a limp, a condition due to arthritis he said, and apologized for asking to use the elevator. Naturally, I sympathized with his situation and was hardly perturbed about making full use of technology designed to make traveling up a flight of stairs easier. It was all in good faith, and we had a delightful little exchange with two elderly woman in the car who both wore London Fog trench coats and had their hair done in perms. Jay asked if the two were sisters which drew a laugh. They cooed that they were merely friends long enough that they had adopted one another’s style and Jay complimented them on their beauty.

As we stepped off the elevator onto the second floor, both ladies thanked Jay and I was struck by the ease of how he could muster up a conversation or a compliment and equally win a person’s heart. I had only known him for no more than 40 minutes and yet felt at complete ease in his presence.

***

I stood facing the work of abstraction bewildered. When we first approached it Jay casually asked what struck me about the painting, and feeling put on the spot, I stumbled at finding the right words let alone thoughts. Jay was patient during the ordeal, sitting off in a corner chair as I mumbled any descriptions I could muster.

“It looks like different scenes,” I proposed, a somewhat obvious and yet necessary fact to state.

Jay nodded.

“The middle scene is kind of horrific,” I added. I walked up close to the painting and motioned around the red “mouth” of the black figure getting ready to climb out the window.

Jay stood up. “You should read the title of the painting.”

I moved sideways towards the information card: Notes Toward a Definition of Nobody – A Reverie.

“What’s remarkable about the painting, to me at least,” Jay placed his hand to his chest, “is how none of these people have identities.” He motioned towards the upper left panel of the painting. “Notice how the figure in this painting looks black. And how his face is non existent. It’s like a head without a neck. When I first encountered this painting I thought it was the work of an African American, but when i looked up R. B. Kitaj, was shocked to read he was a Jewish American who spent much of his career in England.”

I asked during what period Kitaj had painted this, and Jay told me during the early 60s. Not one to lose a beat, he remarked that Kitaj must have seen the civil rights movement and reflected the plight of the African Americans in this unresolved narrative.

He went on about the other panels. The undefined woman in the bottom right, and the creepy face in the top right. Both lacked real definition, and were a reflection of having no identity. He then explained how the geometric lines in the lower left resembled tables and chairs, much like in a classroom. His thought process felt a little hazy to me, and I wasn’t sure if it was him who hadn’t explained everything well enough or I who wasn’t keeping up. But it came to a head with the center panel and the horrific image of a man attempting to jump out of a window. Jay explained how the image outside the window signified the building was high up, and mentioned how the chair was missing a leg. Nothing about this painting had an identity.

“It’s kind of depressing,” I said.

“Exactly,” Jay said. “Most casual viewers don’t pick up on this, but it takes someone like us with bipolar disorder to really grasp the feeling of the abstract.”

I stood there longer, still trying to get a real grasp of the painting. I was curious what about it had moved Jay so much. Jay had briefly mentioned his own heritage as a foreigner from Asia and his different lives living in different countries around the world. Did he feel alone or isolated, a nobody in his adopted land? Or was this a reflection of a darker mental state in his own life? I didn’t dare ask further, because the mystery of the painting was enough to stimulate my own thoughts. I felt lost in the muddled art, and only could make sense of the faceless African American boy in the painting recalling Ralph Ellison’s anthemic civil rights novel Invisible Man and the lack of acknowledgement of the African American existence. In the presence of this profound painting I felt a sense of desolation at how there was no hope I could gather from what Jay dubbed “my Kitaj”.

I had a feeling I would come back to this painting in the future, and was patient enough to leave any further explorations of it for another time. After a few minutes, we left the painting to gaze at other local favorites.

***

Suzanne, Jean, and Martha were a lively trio of middle aged women, full of life just as Jay was. I was introduced to them as I waited in the lobby of the museum for the “local eyes” tour. Jay had persuaded me to hang around long enough to catch the tour, and still drunk from the delight of meeting a kindred soul, had no way of turning down such a wonderful opportunity.

As we sat at the tables of the lobby, Suzanne pegged me over my own favorite works in the museum. I felt intimidated because no one had ever asked me this, and aside from one painting, I had no real idea of what I could consider a favorite. I also have trouble recalling names and details of individual pieces. I always marvel at a critic who can recall an artist’s name or work without any outside assistance. I’m a child of the Internet, and can’t get through a conversation over a particular topic without the assistance of Google.

I did have one painting though that always stuck in my mind, though I can never recall the artist nor title. It’s a small work tucked away in the end gallery of the classical wing of the museum and yet is the most magnetic work on display. Painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, this painting is of Isabella Teotochi Marini, a Venetian writer and countess, who looks flirtatiously at the viewer. Part of the allure of the painting is Le Brun’s detail in capturing a woman’s blush, and in an erotic tinged rosening of the cheeks, invites companionship. It’s no surprise that one of the very few female masters of portrait painting used this aspect of femininity to arouse the viewer’s imagination. Looking at the painting, there’s no other way to describe than to remark that the subject just looks like one hell of a fun woman, someone who you can spend a night adrift in a city with and have tales to tell for the rest of your life.

Suzanne agreed in the magnetism of the painting, though I didn’t share my erotic spin of it. We both agreed that the painting absolutely invited you in a private moment, and though the subject of the painting wasn’t a whore, was a woman who knew how to have a good time.

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Suzanne asked me if I was aware of a similar work located in the Classic Court of a woman’s face painted on a tile. It took a few moments to recall the work she was talking about, but once the painting emerged in my mind I quickly realized it had the same lushness of Marini. We both marveled that the work, which had been painted in 50 CE, could capture the same facial blush and expression as Le Brun centuries later.

Seated next to us during my brief exchange with Suzanne was Jean, a quiet middle aged woman who sat reading her tablet. I occasionally glimpsed her looking up from the computer and zone in on our conversation only to zone out and drift back into her reading.

Across from us was Martha, the more elderly woman in the group, who I would guess was in her late 60s and early 70s. She and Jay were in a lively discussion of their own and I merely looked on at how versed these women were in the arts. I felt less than an amateur, a guy who runs an art blog and never knows what the hell he’s talking about. That’s part of the allure of writing these reviews and articles–I’m just a layman trying to capture my own thoughts and recollections of what intrigues me. Which in a way was what these women were doing. They just happened to know the names and terms and had spent a lifetime steeped in the museum.

I never asked what any of them did for a living, though later Jay would offhandedly remark that he thought Suzanne was a librarian. They obviously were wealthy enough to devote their time and energy at the museum. As the tour started, our guide joked to me that these were her “Friday night regulars”. And they clearly loved the arts.

***

Our first stop of the tour we gathered around this painting entitled Cathedral Woods, Monhegan Island by Robert Henri, which depicted the reflection of sun beams captured in the remoteness of the woods. It was a painting I could describe as beautiful (they’re all beautiful aren’t they?) and perhaps spiritual, but I had never thought about what about why it spoke to me as such.

The guide asked us what color did we first see in the painting. A few hands went up. Martha said she saw the greens of the leafs of the trees that skimmed the top middle of the painting. Another hand. Jean remarked it was the yellow of the sunlight, undoubtedly the center of the painting and most poignant aspect. Another argued it was gold, not yellow. It was a pedantic statement and yet an absolutely crucial distinction.

I remarked that this was a private moment in the eyes of the painter–akin to sitting alone in the shore of a beach and watching the sunset.

We all pondered whether this was a real moment in time and place or fantasy. Jean chimed in. She had visited the woods that the painting was named after, and had seen the same trees and forest. She told us this was one of her favorite paintings, and that the location was real. I was in awe that someone could love a work of art enough that they could afford to take a vacation to see the location of the subject. I was out of my depths, and yet felt alive with the rigor of intellectual stimulation. These were the first human beings I had discussed art with since high school art class. I started to wonder if this could last.

The second painting we visited was right around the corner from the the Cathedral Woods. Entitled Brook by Moonlight and painted by Ralph Albert Blakelock, this was a work I was semi-familiar with. I had never paid too much attention to it during my visits to the museum but it’s presence was always enough to linger in my mind. Jay and the ladies concurred. Jean was especially fond of it, equally as much as the first painting, and spoke about her admiration for the artist.

Blakelock, our guide said, was a experimenter, and had used a tar like substance to create texture in the painting. Showing a picture on a computer screen doesn’t do justice to the effect that the crackled plaster creates with the leaves on the trees. We were prompted to stand up and get closer to the painting (no touching mind you) and I could see the cracks in the material. It almost elevates the leaves and contrasts with the moonlight effect of the green shading that subtly takes up the middle ground of the painting. We then stood farther back, this time losing the effect of the texture of the painting but gaining appreciation of the work in seeing it as a whole composition.

Jay marveled at how symmetrical the painting was, almost as if it was a reflection of itself. I added that the moon reflected in the stream seemed almost a fantasy, as if it were it’s only skyline and version of a moon.

We were all struck by it our own ways, and just as I had felt a spiritualness in the previous painting, I felt a strong presence of something divine in this work. Seeing these moments brought back a memory as a child, no more than 11, and staying up all night to watch the sun rise in the morning. It’s a moment that must absolutely be witnessed in solitude, just myself and the presence of a higher power, or nature, or god, or perhaps the smug satisfaction of believing in nothing. But even an atheist can’t deny the power the seeing that magnificent globe strike your eye with the energy that sustains life, and it’s hard not to be remotely moved.

Such is the same as seeing the moonlight in a dark lit scene. Our guide told us that the work had originally been brown, but had darkened throughout the years. That’s often the case when you experiment. But to me brown would have been all wrong for the painting. It’s the blackness, almost shadows, that strikes a haunting balance with the reflection and shading of green and whitish yellow. I imagined this a quiet moment for the artist, one that would have been shared with no one but himself. I felt like a cheat stealing this moment from him.

Not surprisingly, the guide mentioned that Blakelock painted this around the turn of the 20th century and that he had spent the last decades of his life in a mental asylum. This fact pained me to hear. Having bipolar disorder and been hospitalized many times I knew the fear all too well that one day I could end up roaming the halls of sterile hallways and rooms, robbed of agency and freedom that being alive entails. I’d rather end up homeless than locked away in an institution. I wondered what madness he suffered from, and how his work would have been a salvation, or perhaps a source of torment. This exact piece had in fact sold for half of what he initially seeked for it, no doubt a source of resentment. Fittingly enough, when Edward Drummond Libbey (founder of the museum) purchased this piece, it was the highest sum paid for a work of an living American artist. How bittersweet that must have been for a man locked out of his mind.

Look closely at this work entitled groundspeed, (Rose Petal) #17 by Rosemary Laing and you might think it is another painting, albeit slightly more realistic. I could tell it was a photograph from afar, but Suzanne and Martha were surprised when they discovered it was in fact not painted. There’s a subtle trick at play here. Look at the reflection of the sun against the bark of trees and you no doubt can see the realism of the photography. But slightly below this is a lush animated ground with obviously artificial flowers. They appear to almost have been airbrushed onto the image in post production. Hence the confusion over whether it has been altered in some way.

As it would turn out, though, our guide told us that in fact it was carpeting carefully laid on the ground and that this photograph itself had never been altered. That impressed us, though I wasn’t quite convinced of the message of the set-up.

We were told that the point of injecting the carpet into the natural wild was to represent the intrusion of man into nature, and how we destruct the balance of life. It felt pretentious to me, and I remarked that I would need to see more of the photographs in this series it was a part of to really see what Laing was after.

Jay then remarked at how the photograph had been taken in Australia, and that these woods were not typical of the local flora. He felt this itself was an intrusion on what should have been a more typical representation. Jay also added that he himself had lived in Australia, and that this seemed at odds with the Aborigines and their ties to the land, almost as if creating such an artificial and false depiction of Australia was an insult to the land. It was an interesting thought, and one that would prove to have some validation.

Laing, as our guide explained, had in fact created this series of photographs in response to Australia’s refusal to apologize to the indigenous population over their crimes against them. Hearing Jay’s interpretation and this fact obliterated my disdain over the “supposed” message of the work.

***

We stood amidst a group of college graduates, tucked away in a separate building from the main museum. The small room was packed with art and bodies, and Jay, Suzanne, and I had retreated to a small hallway jutting out of the main room. We all hovered over plates we were holding, munching on a spinach pies and chickpea salad and hummus. Jay and Suzanne had the pleasure of devouring grape leaves as well, but I had refrained because they had beef in them. Being a vegetarian can suck at times, but if I had to eat free food, Mediterranean was the ideal variety.

None of us actually new any of the students the party was being held for. Jay explained that he had only met a woman who was preparing for the event hours before. I wasn’t particularly caring for the whole event, especially since there was no way to get close to the art without bumping shoulders with somebody. Jay, however, was ecstatic to be there.

“I just love to watch people,” he said, after Suzanne had finished her food and left to go home.

“There’s so many,” I said.

“Just look at that guy,” he said, nodding to a man with a pony tail conversing with a pink haired beauty. “He obviously is putting on an act, pretending to be someone fun and important.”

“Sure,” I said. I was simply admiring at how committed he was to that look. I couldn’t even bother to brush my hair.

“They’re all so wonderful. Just so wonderful.”

***

Parting with Jay was a little awkward. The normal entrance to the museum for most people is in the back side of the building on the level floor. There’s a parking space behind the museum where most people park. Except I hadn’t. Admission to the museum is free, but parking cost 5 dollars. And I had spent all my money on the meal earlier. Rather than gouge my pockets for more cash, I had parked three blocks away in a pretty run down neighborhood, and had walked over to the museum. I was a bit ashamed to admit something like this to a Jay, who seemed pretty wealthy compared to me, and simply explained that I had to go upstairs to leave.

Jay nodded, and remarked how wonderful it was meeting me. He told me he was here all the time, and that there were tours every Friday night at 6. I should come sometime. I felt pain in hearing this, because I spend every Friday evening volunteering at the local homeless shelter, and wanted to cement the friendship with something more. But modestly tinged with shyness set in and I merely said it was nice meeting him as well. And with that we parted ways, Jay out the back door and myself ascending a flight of cemented stairs, back to the lobby of the museum.

As I made my way I out the front entrance of the building, I kept cursing to myself over the fact that I could never do this the way Jay and those lovely ladies did. They spent their life devoted to admiring and learning about these paintings and painters, and here I was stuck working, even when I didn’t have a day job. It was selfish, and I don’t want to impart that the homeless shelter isn’t important. It’s the focal point of my life, a commitment to something meaningful to the world, and something larger than myself. There was no way I was going to give up my position as a volunteer. I would just have to suck it up and stick through with my commitment.

***

That was Thursday night, and in case you were wondering, the museum holds occasional tours on days besides Fridays. Meeting Jay was a fluke, an event that only someone heavenly could arrange. But something else had stirred in me.

Friday morning I woke with unrest. It was 9 am and I had to be at the homeless shelter by 6 pm. I felt desperate, a man torn between duty and desire, though I started to convince myself that desire was an absolute duty at this point in my life. And then the thought struck me.

I had only been volunteering for 2 months at the shelter, and though my time had been brief, was enough where I could move on to serving on a more convenient day.

I dialed the volunteer coordinator and prayed she would pick up as the phone rang. The wait wasn’t long, and Brenda answered and was completely understanding when I asked to be moved to a different day. I am ashamed to concede that I did lie and told her I was considering taking a job that would require me to work Friday nights, but it sounded better than telling her I wanted to spend the rest of my life going on art tours. But she was understanding, and we arranged it so that I could serve on Sundays, far from an ideal day (I was hoping Monday) but good enough to elevate my soul. After the arrangement was made I then told her I wouldn’t be in that night because I had to take my nephew to the hospital. I have no idea where that lie originated from, but she simply said “Okay”.

***

There I was, pacing the lobby as 6 o’clock came around. I was excited and hopeful; I wanted back in the presence of people I hope to one day call ‘friends’. And sure enough, there was Jay and Martha, talking away as they strolled through the lobby, unaware of my presence. I walked up to them and said hello, and smiles cut across both of their faces.

“Michael,” Martha said, “how great to see you again!”

“Where else would I be?” I said.

We talked amongst ourselves before being interrupted by our tour guide, a different woman from yesterday. We grabbed portable chairs as she told us that we were going to be confused by the paintings we were going to see. I asked why and she told us because they seem to have nothing to do with each other in appearances.

“Oh, I wouldn’t put it past us,” Jay said, his laughter echoing behind us.

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