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!


What A Novella Can Be: A Room With A View

In its review of Josh Weil’s 3 novellas (wrapped up into one volume), the NYT gets to the heart of what a novella can be:

A good novella has an intensity and concentration rarely found in novels, and an expansiveness and scope rarely found in stories. If a short story is a piece of furniture and a novel is a house, then a novella is a room — and in that room a skilled writer can sometimes find space for all the aberrations and terrors and longings of a character’s life. The right room can intimate its occupant’s past and future, frustrations and failures, the shape of the house beyond.

The room is a great metaphor for the novella. On a smaller scale than the novel, the novella is cozy. Each word must be carefully chosen — I’ve spent half an hour just crunching out one sentence — and because of this the detailing can be that much more rich and fluid.

The room analogy, however, also makes the novella seem like a subset of a novel (a room is a subset of a house), which it is not. Character development and complexity must be as fine-tuned as a novel. This may in fact make novellas trickier to write because the action and description must convey the same amount of understanding as a novel, but in the confines of a much smaller, more intimate space.

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.