Days 18 & 19 Part One: The Elephant In The Room


"Woman, 1965" by Willem de Kooning, paint on wood

Here’s the thing. I don’t know much about art, but I love looking at it.

I used to like creating it. As a kid, I remember the distinct oily smell of finger paints and the slippery feel of the special paper under my fingers as I smeared color in swirls and lines. Watercolors came in little tin boxes with plastic brushes, and after a bit of time the water in the cup turned a dark, sludgy grayish purple. It took forever for the paper to dry.

"Conception Synchrony", 1914 by Stanton McDonald-Wright

Later, I sketched things with pencil–I was fascinated by hands for awhile, and I seem to remember a horse phase somewhere around fourth grade. Unfortunately, our small school didn’t have an art program, and for some reason I just never sought out any books on art history or biographies of artists in my random borrowings from the Bangor Public Library. I don’t think I went to an art museum until I was in college, and even then I passed up chances to take art history in favor of other electives.

Now, at forty-something, I can’t seem to get enough of it.

"Composition In Light," Window from Coonley Playhouse, 1912. Frank Llyoyd Wright

Art is a window. We look through this window and see the world in new ways. We look into this window and see another person’s inner world. We learn something about perspective, understanding that we all view the world and its events through a psychological/emotional/historical lens which distorts, to some extent, reality.

"The Sorceress" by Jean Tinguely, 1961.

Every person’s lens is shaped a different way. I guess we’re all just bent.

Take this sculpture of a woman for example. She’s a twisted aggregate of rusted springs, iron, steel, and a motor. It makes me think–we are all of us made of the same elements, just molded and shaped in different ways, twisted by events big and small, worn out or still shiny new, motors chugging along just fine or backfiring now and then, maybe running a little rough and in need of a tune-up. The same, yet different. This is what art tells me. Appreciate the unique in all of us.

"Greenhouse" 1988 by Michael Lucero

Isn’t this the tower we all wanted to build when we were kids? It reminded me of playing with those Lincoln Logs toy sets. This piece also made me think of layers of civilization piled up, all the rusted out old technology finally topped by a more sustainable way of life.

Detail from Luceo's "Greenhouse" sculpture

Of course I loved this piece: rooster, farm equipment. Is it strange that I feel so alive here in a city environment while at the same time pulled toward “the farm” and an agricultural life?

David Smith "Big Rooster," 1945.

Perhaps my life-lenses are bifocals!

Willem de Kooning "Woman Sag Harbor," 1964. "Woman," 1964. "Woman," 1965.

Willem de Kooning’s bubblegum pink, clown orange, and candy-apple red portraits made me smile because we can’t take ourselves so seriously all the time. That’s something else modern art teaches me.

Joan Miro "Woman & Little Girl in Front of the Sun," 1946.

As fabulous as all these sculpture and paintings are at the Hirshhorn, some of the most powerful and astonishing pieces are the video projections–films and/or photographs projected onto huge screens. I’ve never seen anything like these.

The first took me by surprise as I entered a side gallery on the third floor. Here was Grazia Toderi’s “Orbile Rose,” 2009 and “Rosso Babele,” 2006. Walking into the room, your eyes widen to see a giant, bifold screen covered in a reddish projected image that looks like a cross between the planet Jupiter and a photo of a city electrical grid taken from an airplane at night. Flashes of light move your eye here and there. Lines of lights snake around a conical shape–right side up on one screen and upside down on the other. It reminded me of nothing so much as that old computer game Asteroids mixed with a background shot from a science fiction movie. Click HERE to see it on the Hirshhorn website. It’s redder in real life than it looks on the computer.

Sculpture Outside the Hirshhorn Museum

So are you wondering yet about the elephant in the room? Typically, they are the things we avoid talking about if we can help it, we pretend they aren’t there. Here I am referring to another projected piece, this one from the second floor in the Fragments In Time and Space exhibit. (Please, please click the link so you can see an image.)

I’ll attempt to describe what is best observed. Walking around the circular space into one gallery after another, you enter a dim room with white-painted walls and a whitish-gray floor. In the middle of the room, giant screens slightly overlap each other facing outward. There is a small screen with a close-up shot almost hiding in one corner. Projected on the screens, an image of a room with white-painted walls and a whitish-gray floor . . . and a big, gray elephant. The elephant walks around, swings its truck, lays down on the floor. The piece is called, “Play Dead; Real Time,” 2003 by Douglas Gordon.

There is, in a surreal way, an elephant in the room.

Turning The Corner

I thought, maybe sometimes you have to look at something that makes you uncomfortable, acknowledge it, talk about it, and then move on.

So I did. But later, this exhibit got me thinking about how important art education is for students. Art and music and languages should not be seen as “dispensable” subjects when discussing school budgets. More and more I’m thinking that budgets, if they need to be cut, should be cut across board. Our kids need access to the visual and performing arts in conjunction with language arts and math and science if they are going to be able to really get down to business and think . . . Outside The Box.

"ART surrounds us" poster

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