Sunday, August 14, 2011

Minneapolis Institute of Art

There's something very civilized about your first impression of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  Their website says there's parking on the south side of the building, and there it is.  And it's free.  So is the gallery itself, though they reasonably ask for donations so they can keep it free.  There's a room for children to play and explore in, and a sunny cafe where families can sit at large or small tables and have engaged conversations.  There's a quiet, flower-filled courtyard where you can rest your feet in the shade. The gallery spaces, unlike MOMA, all have some place to sit down and contemplate the work.  The collection ranges widely, though there's one very good Van Gogh, two Monets, a couple of Picassos, two Seurats, two Georgia O'Keefe's--single works by most of the important North American and European artists of the twentieth century--including (Tracy, this is for you) an Egon Schiele portrait that is haunting.

They also balance their collection between art and the "fine arts."  In fact, one of my favourite exhibitions was called "Conversations with wood:  selections from the Waterbury Collection."  The artists represented here had taken "wood turning" into entirely different directions.  Many of these pieces were more sculptural than reminiscent of lathe-turned vessels we find at Bazaart or Wintergreen.   There was a carefully carved "vase" that would hold nothing:  its boundaries were made with flowing carved grasses of dark mahogany.  There was a kind of tiny frieze that looked both realistic and otherworldly with a really long title that made clear it was a piece of beautifully imagined visual science fiction. There was a small flat bowl into which the artist had inlaid a constellation of silver wire that whirled out to nothingness.  It's one of the most peaceful things I've ever seen.   While the MIA lets you photograph most of the work in their collection, as long as you don't use flash, this work is so new that photographs weren't allowed.

As I've been writing, I've been trying to think how I'd describe the difference between my reactions to sitting on a room full of late impressionism or cubism, and standing in a room full of wooden sculptures.  Looking at paintings, I'm gobsmacked.  I'm taught to see all over again, and taught to see the ideas in what I see.  Taught to see an historical moment colliding with a particular sensibility, taught to see a culture thinking through the work of individual artists.  When I leave the gallery, it's as if everything is more intense and meaningful.  Minneapolis, as you can see from the photograph above of downtown seem from the window of the MIA, is a well-treed city.  And they have every kind of tree:  oaks, several kinds of maples, ginkos, trees I can't even name.  When you come out of the gallery, that world is suddenly more intense and present:  you notice every variation on 'green.'  The t-shirt worn by the young man walking toward you probably has cultural significance, as does the way he struts, the music he listens to, his chat with his girlfriend.  After looking at paintings, you are reminded that the visual world has meaning, that meaning is everywhere.  On most days, we're just too busy or too overwhelmed to pay it full attention.

When I'm in a room that's full of work that edges the boundary between art and craft--the Gees Bend quilts I saw several years ago in Denver, or the conversations in wood I saw in the MIA, it's my hands that the work speaks to.  If you Google "Gees Bend Quilts," you'll see the brave, adventurous quilts these women made out of worn clothing.  That they took the more serviceable pieces of dresses or workpants or jeans and made them into these visual explosions is remarkable.  But when you see the quilts in the flesh, you see the patterns of wear, the way the threads have been gentled by time, the subtle patina of use.  They speak to you of daily lives, of the conversation between daily life and the determination to create beauty.  And you want to touch them.  Similarly, "Conversations in Wood" made my hands itch and ache. Though like the paintings, this work has ideas that challenge traditional ways of making and being and seeing, it appeals through our sense of touch in a way that reminds us of how this work is connected to our daily lives.

This is the other work that blew me away, and forced me to think more about Soul Weather.  It's called "An exile dreaming of St. Adorno," and it was created by Siah Armanjani, who came to Minneapolis from Iran.  Because the photograph is taken without flash, so I was sitting against the wall to get enough stability so keep it from blurring, you can't quite see the "exile" in his prison-like room nor can you quite see the way the bars of the inner room echo those in the outer room or the way the black and white ticking on the mattress echoes the bars of the prison/room.  Monastic cell for contemplation or some kind of prison cell the exile has agreed to occupy?  Like the work of Manders at the Walker, this installation is both very peaceful and very unnerving.  The didactic panel referred the viewer to a quotation from Adorno--the "saint" that the exile is dreaming of:  "It is part of morality not to be at home in one's home."  What does that mean?  My character Lee, when she talks of Empedocles, thinks that sometimes we're simply too uncritically comfortable in the present moment, leading I suppose to complacency.  But "home"?  Isn't that the one place where we're allowed to let our critical guard down for the day?  Or, as I'm coming to conclude, does "home" have the perfect balance between peace and challenge that gives us a space where we're both safe and forced to grow and stretch and be more human than we would be if we were swathed in some kind of cocoon?  Please, tell me what you think.

I'll post some photographs to the other blogs I sent from Mpls in the coming days.  Time to practice my guitar.

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