Thursday, February 28, 2008

Art - a rediscovery

I think I've always been a little cynical about art.

I was probably nine or ten when I was first exposed to art outside of school. In this case, the art came in the form of paintings when my mother developed an interest in works by Matisse and Monet. The paintings in our house were actually big 24x36" exhibition posters. While I found some of them to be interesting, they didn't light any sort of spark in me.

At some point shortly after the framed Monet posters started appearing on the walls, she purchased a small oil painting at a local gallery. I found this painting to be slightly more interesting due to the physical structure of the paint - something which the posters lacked completely. I remember staring at tiny sections of the painting looking at how the various layers of thick paint crisscrossed each other. But still, this painting of what might have a been a summer day on a street somewhere in Tuscany didn't move me.

In sixth grade, we were introduced to the works of M. C. Escher. These paintings, as well as the ones by Dali I would discover a little bit later, caused me to marvel at both the technical execution and the twisted thought processes that must have gone into their creation. But still, tho I littered my own walls with the likes of "The Persistence of Memory" and "Bonds of Union" my emotions were never inspired by any of these images.

I remember trips to the National Gallery where I would wander the whole thing, following behind my mother who seemed to be marveling at every other painting. I recall being intrigued by the size and scope of something by Jackson Pollack - but I know now that I was too young to appreciate it beyond the fact that there were cigarettes and other shit stuck to it.

The most memorable of these trips - probably the last time I went with her and which would have been when I was in high school, I recall being touched for the first time by a painting. It was just a small one - an outdoor scene of an olive orchard or some other trees (and I can't for the life of me remember what it was or who might have painted it) but it blew me away. I was first entranced by the technical execution. The whole thing was dabs of paint - but it wasn't a blurry catastrophe so I'm sure it wasn't a Pissaro. It was sharp and in focus even close up. And to my surprise, I found that when my brain was finished thinking about what had gone into making such a thing appear on a canvas, I realized I could feel a shadow of what the artist had been feeling as he stood in front of that scene.

On Sunday we went to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

We first wandered through pre-Columbian art from the Americas then ventured into an exhibition of American Modernist paintings. The memory of what it felt to look upon that small painting years before was barely registering in the back of my mind as I walked through the collections on the museum's first floor. I could remember that I had been moved, but I didn't remember the feeling.

Erika was determined to see the Rodin sculptures so we checked the brochure and it said they were located in the Cone collection. This was on the 2nd floor, so we took the elevator up and stepped out into a huge hall which was lined with ancient mosaics from the Roman Empire. Again, my art appreciation was entirely cerebral - I marveled at the size of the things, at how old they were and how much work it must have taken to get them here from halfway around the world - and from under tons of earth.

All this changed just a few feet further down the hall. A door on the left opened into the Cone Collection. As you step into the first room of the gallery, you are surrounded by Matisse. These were some of the same images that had been on my mother's posters but the difference was staggering. The colors were incredibly vivid. Where the posters were flat and lifeless, the texture and thickness of the paint made these pictures seem alive.

As I walked among these paintings - slowly and carefully, trying not to miss the slightest detail, I felt a warmth growing inside of me. I went from room to room and found that while the Cones certainly had a lot of Matisse, they didn't have a lot of any other single artist. The other rooms featured works from Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, and tons of abstract expressionists I'd never even heard of. As I took in all of these, some did nothing for me and I found at these points my mind was engaged, thinking about the details or what went into the execution. Others just caused me to stop and take them in, with no thought other than to stand there and absorb the sensations coming in.

And then it happened for real. I had just turned from looking at a very blue Picasso - a work which made me think about the technique - and I found myself looking at a pair of boots.

It's not a very big painting. It shows two boots - one upside down, the other looking worn and ragged. They could be inside next to the front door or outside next to the front step. Whatever the case, I could only stand and stare, my mouth hanging open like an idiot. I felt my stomach lurch and I had to take a step back because I thought I might fall over. Hanging next to it, and painted in a similar style was a small landscape with trees and a woman walking toward a house in the background. The feeling was still there when looking at this one, but it was stronger looking at the boots. It was such a strong feeling that it wouldn't surprise me to find out that these particular boots were never worn again because their owner -some close friend of the artist - had just died.

Van Gogh's Pair of Boots (1887)

The cards next to each of these paintings said, "Vincent Van Gogh." What they didn't say - but which was instantly clear to me - is that Van Gogh had more passion for painting than could be found in a combination of any ten other artists whose works were hanging on these same walls.

I had never shown any aptitude for art in school, but I left the museum feeling a need to draw or paint.

So here's my first stab at making art. I know it's not perfect - the glass doesn't seem to actually be on the table - but it's a start.

Sesame Oil, Sponge Ball, and Glass (#2 pencil on cardstock)

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