I decide not to check my coat at the museum. It seems risky and scary in my current state of mind, but, of course, I run into an acquaintance who works as a greeter and although our conversation seems like it’s going well, and feels relatively normal, in my head I’m thinking, oh god, am I smiling too much? Is the pause between her words and my response the right amount of time? It is... so... bright in here.
As I float up the tall flight of stairs to the “New Arrivals” exhibition, I’m greeted almost immediately by Grace Hartigan’s ‘Pallas Athena - Fire’ a large, dark, jewel-toned, chunky and swooshy abstract painting. Right next to it on the wall are two pieces by the Polish artist Pol Bury: ‘Erectile Entity 4,’ a small pulpy black square, in the middle of which a rough nest of tiny, spindly red sticks move and click, so subtly; and ‘149 Hammered Stems,’ a copper piece which resembles a closeup up of a patch of hair follicles in skin, or oddly-spaced out blades of grass. These “blades” or “hairs” also move, and I’m transfixed for too long by their whirring, breathing, ticking, switching, clinking, creaking, static, glitching. These mechanical, bodily creatures are quietly arresting, and when I glance back at the Hartigan painting, while Bury’s clicking symphony plays, my eye traces the swaths of blue paint and gloopy violet, red, white, and black paint and I can almost hear the wet sounds of thick paint being pushed around a canvas.
In my first (sober) excursion through the “New Arrivals” exhibition, I questioned the seemingly random logic of this collection of works: a mid-19th century quilt next to Terry Winters and Jim Dine drawings? Yoruba sculptures across from a huge Ellsworth Kelly print? But on the second, third, and fourth visits while stoned, I felt that these strange curatorial connections were the point—they’re trying to use difference to find commonalities and pick up on subtle similarities between seemingly disparate objects.
“She’s 88, she’s no spring chicken,” a guard on the other side of the wall says. The guards are talking so loud about their wives, or mothers, maybe. I scrutinize two sculptures in the same display case by 20th century Ewe and Mende artists, from the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, respectively. Both are sculptures of women: the Ewe sculpture is small, carved from a reddish wood, her hair and garments painted on with red, bluish, and brown paint; the Mende sculpture is about twice the size of the Ewe sculpture, and carved from wood and painted glossy black. According to the description, the Ewe figure might’ve been part of a domestic shrine, while the Mende sculpture was used for divination.
A group of four or five older white women walk past. “I would never collect those,” one woman says, referring to the African sculptures. She fears the “leftover taboos” in them since, she adds, these objects were typically used for ritual and religious purposes. I wrinkle my nose at this strangely snotty comment, but it makes me think about the magical qualities of art across cultures, how in many indigenous cultures art is an intrinsic part of life, and not an object to be bought and sold. Yet many of these objects wind up in Western museums.
But then, I turn around and get lost in the Ellsworth Kelly piece opposite these African sculptures. Standing in front of the massive ‘River II,’ a lithograph of disjointed black and white horizontal and diagonal lines mounted on aluminum, feels like staring at the ocean at night, knee-deep in water, with nothing but the moon and condo lights reflecting on the surface, and the vague fear that you could maybe, somehow, get swept down in an undertow and drown—all of this mixing with an odd calm. This strange tranquility is heightened by Kelly’s ‘Green Red Yellow Blue’ to the right: four canvases, each painted the bright titular colors. At a certain distance, the colors exude such a painful, grating vibration but I can’t look away, and my panicking eye hops from panel to panel, taking note of the canvases’ manufactured feel (their shallow depth), the cheapness and glossiness of the paint. ‘River II’ is a respite from this, and before I read the wall text I knew it was supposed to feel like a body of water. “OF COURSE,” I write in my notebook, “because we all understand the water.”
Everything in this exhibition feels tangential and subjective to me—I begin to anxiously doubt my own interpretation of it so far—but something in there, in the water, I think, also helps me see connections to things. Throughout the exhibit there are large display cases with glass covers that you can walk around; one has a series of Antoine-Louis Barye’s small bronze animal sculptures (very Americana); another with men’s hats from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mali; another with gilded porcelain teacups and a silver urn. As I look at the objects under the glass covers, I also find myself looking through them at the works on the walls behind them, seeing everything in context with these objects.
For example, behind Barye’s sculptures, which I see as commercial kitsch, are a series of nudes and on the adjacent wall a series of Romantic landscapes, and, on the opposite wall, some abstract litho prints by Robert Blackburn—so, what one normally thinks of as “fine art.” And the African men’s intricate hats, whose interesting bulbous or elongated shapes, patterns and textures suggest the wearers’ societal status, formally fit in well, on one side, with the mushroom-like Martin Kline bronze piece, the Jim Dine and Terry Winters charcoal drawings that all elicit a brooding, close look at natural forms. And, on the other side, Dorothea Lange’s work from 1939 for the Farm Security Administration, documenting the “drastic transformation of American farms due to soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, and increasing farm mechanization.” There are layers to these photos of Oregon farmers and their homes—from representations of the everyday, to the social and economic impact of the New Deal programs.
Why do I think I need to relate to or understand every piece of art? Is it selfish? A few minutes later I encounter Liz Whitney Quisgard’s ‘Wall Hanging: 42 Circles,’ a narrow tapestry stretching from floor to ceiling which plays with color theory and shape and, well, nothing else. Quisgard doesn’t want “readings” of her work, and that’s fine. “We all understand a row of triangles, a strip of squares, an arrangement of circles and swirls. No need to ask their meaning. They simply are what they are. They speak to us universally without apology,” she is quoted in the wall text for her work. It “means” nothing, it’s pure optics and viscera.