Balance and Body Highs

‘Devil’s blow’ scent bottle by lucio bubacco
‘Devil’s blow’ scent bottle by lucio bubacco (Baltimore Museum of Art)

Like many large art exhibitions, "New Arrivals" is a serious but rewarding undertaking when stoned. In this state, the adjoined galleries feel labyrinthian, like a slightly downsized museum in its own right. The sober equivalent to exploring the show might be hiking uphill while simultaneously reading a book of short stories or poems. It's physically and mentally demanding, and if you're not careful you might bump into strangers or trip over yourself, which I did.

It takes me a few trips to digest everything. The first time around, I lose steam quickly, about halfway through the exhibition—or so I think, until I drag myself on to find four more rooms of loosely themed walls, pedestals, and corners.


Not surprisingly, the second time is easier. I notice that the show loses power toward the middle of the lengthy space; where I find kinda ornate silver dishes and society portraits—rich people stuff—and other things I can almost never bring myself to care about, even under the influence of something that's supposed to make most things at least mildly interesting. I am, however, drawn to French designer Emile Gallé's early 20th century glass table lamp, waxy yellow with drops of fuschia flowers, lit from within both the shade and the base. It has the effect of a motionless lava lamp—but, you know, not something that would adorn the room of someone whose favorite book is "Fight Club" and who has a stash of coupons to Spencer's Gifts beneath their futon.

Glass is often satisfying to the eyes of the baked; obviously, there's a reason people seek out and splurge on exquisite blown pipes and bongs. It's a liquid frozen in motion, a kind of dark magic. Or at least that might explain why, on the top shelf of a large walnut sideboard by Daniel Pabst (also displaying a Dale Chihuly piece among other glassworks) stands a swole red devil atop a black sphere, blowing a glass orb through a long pipe. The piece, itself made of glass by Lucio Bubacco, is a scent bottle, a small and easily missable moment of kitsch that I welcomed in this sea of fancy taste trophies. Just a few feet away stands an ornate vase by Kari Russell-Pool formed by lampworked plant vines and flowers intersecting in a kind of lattice pattern. It's as if my deceased English grandmother and Guy Fieri were sharing an apartment.

The galleries nearest the entrances/exits (there's no right way to start or end) hold the most daze-worthy pieces. One end focuses on the figure—a theme that, when you're stoned, can really make you feel self-conscious, or it might bring on a kind of body high. René Magritte's large bronze sculpture 'Delusions of Grandeur,' a funneled three-level layer cake of a female torso, hit me in not such a great way—in my difficult-to-decipher notes, I scrawled "more like 'Delusions of Gran-dumb.'" Though I usually love Magritte, I struggle with images of fractured or amputated female bodies created by male artists (and there are many), and here it doesn't help that I'm confronted by a massive legless, armless tits-ass-abs-crotch totem as soon as I walk in. I'm trying to keep my own body in check, paranoid about being solid mass in space where there is other, larger, more stable mass elsewhere. How can I be so sure my head and limbs won't fall off, too?

Right next to the Magritte is a woodcut of a seated nude woman by Matisse. This lucky lady has all her limbs, and her head. I'm taken in by the visible softness of her loose skin, which Matisse renders through thick, wavering marks, wrapping beneath her slightly sagging belly and breast and hugging her outline. There's gravity here, but it's the kind that pulls in every direction and only exists in a heavy haze. Similarly frenetic yet contained lines cover Bruce Conner's tight pen drawings 'Book Pages,' which remind me of my doodles from high school on days when I'd forget to take my OCD meds.

Opposite a wall of stark geometric abstractions by the late Ellsworth Kelly (one of which, an orange triangle with a single curved side, inevitably reminds me of a slice of pizza) hangs 'An Imitation of Lady Maya Giving Birth to Prince Siddhartha,' an elaborate color woodcut by 19th-century Japanese printmaker Utagawa Kunisada—who, by the way, also did some pretty impressive and at times alarming erotic prints. The shift here from Kelly's pure color to Kunisada's rich pockets of detail and vice versa brings relief from either end, and I find myself rotating every few seconds to keep a balance. In this state, I'm always craving a constant back-and-forth between opposing elements, whether it be textures, flavors, colors, or sounds; and I realize "New Arrivals" satiaties that need more than most museum shows.

Still, the intensity and abundance of opposites is overwhelming. I take temporary refuge in a little nook dedicated to textile art—tapestries, elaborate embroidery, a tea cozy, among other things. I gravitate toward a small model of Françoise Grossen's 1985 'San Mateo Fiber Sculpture,' an assembly of doll-like forms made from braided and knotted fiber cords, folded and drooping over multilevel pedestals. They resemble the limp skeletons of fish, or me slumped deeply into my couch just before I headed for the museum. Gazing at the doll-like miniatures, I'm tempted to surrender to my natural noodle-bodied disposition, or better yet, shrink down to a maquette-sized version of myself and chill with these rope people.

Leaving the galleries, I intend to rush home and assume a similar position on my bed, but my High Art partner and I stop for what was probably the most rewarding sight of our excursion: a toddler, pressing his shrinky-dink body and flushed face against the mezzanine partition overlooking the museum lobby. His guardian graciously allows him to continue spreading his boogers and saliva around the glass as we try to contain ourselves, completely blissed out on the other side. Must be nice to just let yourself react to art (or just a flat shiny surface, but whatever) the way your body wills. For a minute I consider retaliating by licking the glass, too, but then I remember that I'd like to return to this establishment.