Art on a Bus, Art in a Museum: How Do YOU See It?

Promotion for the Cleveland Museum of Art's new East Wing

Friday morning, while navigating a stream of rush-hour traffic, a bus whizzed by. Usually rattled by anything five times the size of my car, I grumbled and looked up. But what I saw on that big ‘ole bus made my day! Why? Splashed on the side was a huge banner (above) advertising the Cleveland Museum of Art’s new East Wing (fabulous, by the way — all glass, glossy floors, and a bow to the 19th century original building). Its message was magnificent!

“How Do YOU See It?” read the caption on the banner in milk-colored script. The museum was inviting the public to share their views of what the art means to them. Usually you walk through, read the placards, and take away the curator’s view. Or if you take a tour of the museum, you come away believing the docent’s view. Or maybe when you stare up at the painting you only try to figure out what the artist herself was saying. Here it’s all about the individual viewer and their impressions. What does the artwork make the viewer feel, see, think about?

[Shameless plug, but this is exactly my theme in my book Degrees of Freedom.]

When you enter the galleries, you are invited to share your take on the CMA’s works of art by submitting comments using interpretive cards available on-site at the museum. The Cleveland Museum of Art cards, which are an assortment of works by Modigliani, Avedon, others, read: 


Everyone interprets art differently. Consider this an invitation to use this card as a canvas upon which to describe, draw, paint, decoupage, distress, haiku, or whatever will best communicate how you see this piece of art.


Now, if I can just get my hands on those cards (which will be used by the museum for promotional purposes) – what a feast!


Cheeky to Eeky: Where Public Art Went Wrong

Declared unacceptable: A huge yellow sign spelling out “United States” on the Canada-facing facade of the new border station in Massena, N.Y., is being dismantled because of security concerns.

After years of working closely with the architects, the New York firm of Smith-Miller & Hawkinson, the Customs and Border Patrol (part of DHS) signed off on the final version of a new border-crossing station in northeastern New York State in 2007. Yet three weeks ago, less than a month after the station opened, workers began prying the big yellow letters off the building’s facade on orders from CBP. “There were security concerns,” said Kelly Ivahnenko, a spokeswoman for CBP. “The sign could be a huge target and attract undue attention. Anything that would place our officers at risk we need to avoid.”

I kind of agree. However I don’t think CBP was necessarily balking at the idea that public art would attract undue attention; it was the choice of the huge neon letters that caused the controversy. The big yellow letters of welcome seem almost Disneyland-esqe; not quite the image that a security agency wants to promote. Save that for the welcome center with their big, showy gardens of flowers.

I love the idea; it was the execution that went haywire!

Male Art, Go Gather Dust


Pompidou Center, Paris

Pompidou Center, Paris

Having put works by male artists in storage, the Pompidou Centre in Paris is preparing to open a new exhibition, elles@centrepompidou, filling its permanent collection galleries with the tale of art since the twentieth century as seen exclusively through the eyes of female artists, The Los Angeles Times reports. The exhibiton’s organiser conceeds that taking this approach to the display of Europe’s largest collection of Modern and Contemporary Art is a risk: “Excluding men and showing only women is a revolutionary gesture of affirmative action. But the museum is avant-garde. It’s part of the Centre Pompidou culture to do things differently. And we like a lot of drama. This is going to be dramatic in a big way.”

Wow, I don’t even know what to think of this. It’s a pretty groundbreaking concept: Putting works by male artists in storage.

In storage.

Feminist shows are set up all the time. That part of it is nothing new. It’s the storage thing that gets me (although I can’t think of another  solution). To put something into storage is so deameaning. It screams “object, you are so useless to me right now that you don’t deserve even a daily glance.”

Maybe I’m just thrown by that powerful intro (in storage!), but this is saying to me “move over men! We women are not only exhibiting by ourselves, but we may not bring back your stuff at all.” It’s like the women can’t wait for the dust to move in, settle down, and grow thick. Real thick.

Sorry, I’m just really hung up on words. When journalists write, they pick words very, very carefully.

I’ve said it before, but wow. Critics can really move a concept and a reader’s impression. There’s no indication of how long the exhibit will show, but I’m sure the exhibitionists are in no rush to reinstitute normalcy.

Art Critics Rock My World

So after a month of trying to figure out the real punchline of this blog, and thinking until this point that it was just a freeform commentary on all things art, I’m realizing that I’m equally (if not more) fascinated by the critics’ writing about the art as the art itself. Maybe it’s because I like to write and I’m in awe. Yep, that’s probably it.

Not only am I rocked by their descriptive language, but also their perception of the art. I think: how did they get that, from THAT?

Just “listen” to this, written by Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith for the Tate online:

Eva Rothschild’s sculptures have been likened to “artefacts from some lost civilisation or from some post-apocalyptic scenario” whose symbolic meanings have all but faded from memory or lie just beyond our current imaginings. Though leavened by wit and humour, especially evident in the choice of titles, their occasional intimations of esoteric magic also hint at something darker. Many perch on spindly stands, while some jut out from high corners, or arc precariously overhead, or appear to hover improbably in mid-air, a narrow cascade of coloured leather strips obscuring their support. Though fundamentally stable, they often appear to twist on their axes or teeter precariously. Her lexicon of forms is instantly recognisable, but surprisingly varied. It includes thick lumpen masses, thin angular slabs, sinuous coils, woven sheets, shaggy fringes and, above all, slender rods of painted wood that kink crazily here and there, creating complex, off-kilter geometries in space.

Pretty good stuff.

But a few other things: 1) without the art, there’d be no inspiration for those critics, and 2) many artists are on the fence about the critics… Bad review and your career is over, good review and you are flying high. Artists are beholden to the critics. Sometimes this does not paint a pretty picture.

Critiquing the Critic

"Winter Stories #49" (2008). Digital C-Print, 40 x 50 in.

"Winter Stories #49" (2008). Digital C-Print, 40 x 50 in.

Often when I read reviews by seasoned art critics, I’m struck by their own profound take on the art. It’s as if the critics themselves have an ethereal power to bring a piece of work to life, to move it beyond the place at which the artist even “sees” it. Maybe the impact of the art is partly predicated on what the reviewer has to say about it. Which, if you are an art critic, is a pretty powerful place to be in.

So I was clicking through my sites this morning and fixated on one particular piece describing Paolo Ventura’s works. I was musing over his dioramas (he creates the dioramas by hand, scrapping together random bits of material, and then photographs the display), which are surreal, and my mind kept wandering back to my own idea of fantastical places, like carnivals, foggy vistas, smoky lampposts. So I thought that I had been struck by the art on my own volition.

But then I realized it was the title of the review that really struck me from the get-go, and probably snagged me: “The Invented Worlds of Paolo Ventura.” (Twenty seconds later, after a few more sips of coffee, I realized that the “invented world” was actually Ventura’s characterization of his art, not the critic’s. But regardless, the description certainly takes you to “that place.” At least the reviewer was smart enough to latch on to that unique characterization in the interview with the artist.)

Anyway, I started jumping around to the critic’s powerful phrases: “startlingly evocative tableaux”  “distorted the commonplace” “precise way the light and shadow play out” “faded carnival.” The critic’s review was able to evoke the artist’s world, to take us into his mind, then back to ours, then bounce all around in regions inexplicable.