Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The American Visionary Art Museum

I probably shouldn't be allowed to write about the AVAM - in fact, I probably shouldn't be allowed to mention "Baltimore" in the same sentence as "art" -without having seen a couple of John Waters movies. And I haven't seen any. So, you know, make of this what you will.

Lemme say right up front that I really enjoyed this museum. I dug things like the big falling angel sculpture in the main building, the glass encrusted hearse in the barn, the photos of crop circles, the kinetic sculpture of the guy at his desk... (Wish I'd made notes on the names of the artists and titles of the pieces. Wasn't really thinking about blogging that day.)

That said, I found that my reaction to it has a lot in common with how I feel when I listen to David Byrne - (probably not) coincidentally, someone else who grew up partly in Maryland and then went elsewhere.

I.e., I usually really enjoy his music, but as often as not there's something in the way he sings, if not his lyrics, that tells me he's embarrassed about the music (if he's in his American Naive mode) or embarrassed in the face of the music (if he's in his World Music mode). And I can identify - boyoboy can I identify - but at the same time, sometimes you just want him to shaddup and let the music be what it is. The best example of David Byrne being David Byrne is Rei Momo, an album with some real nice Latin music, real hot stuff, and Byrne playing Self-Conscious White Guy on top of it all. There's art in the tension that creates, of course - hell, I like the album - but sometimes you just want to enjoy the music without the precious ironic positioning. That's when I reach for my revolver.

So: the American Visionary Art Museum. Which is to say, a big three-building museum devoted to what seems still to be known to most as outsider art, but which the AVAM prefers to describe as visionary. There's the Byrne effect, positioning the art for us a little too forcefully. Like, isn't there a lot of art that could deservingly be called visionary, but not outsider? That doesn't fall under the AVAM's brief?

Similarly, you read the wall texts (I spend far too much time in museums reading wall texts, I know), and they spend all this space talking about the biographies of the artists, always emphasizing the same things. It ends up constructing this sort of hierarchy of outsiderness: you know, like, the more time the artist has spent in a mental hospital, the more we're supposed to respect the art. Mmm. I understand the message: you don't have to go to the Right Art School and get your stuff displayed in a Hoity-Toity Soho Gallery to be an artist worth looking at. But overturning the hierarchy isn't destroying it. Reverse elitism is still elitism.

The thing is, the stuff on display doesn't need all this. There's some really cool stuff in there. That is, stuff that satisfies any definition of Art you'd care to give. My definition of art is pretty all-inclusive, but even by a narrower definition: high degree of craftsmanship, high degree of thought, lots of Meaning, challenging subject matter, tantalizing intertextuality, startling imagery, etc. All the hallmarks of Art. Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck.

Did somebody step on a duck?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Franz West and the Baltimore Museum of Art

So, on the same trip to Baltimore that showed us the Basilica, me and Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki also went to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Looking around the web at blogs that discuss Baltimore, it's clear that a lot of people feel compelled to write and talk about how the place is falling apart. I don't have much to say about that, at least not here; partly because that's not what this blog is about, and partly because, well, what is there to say about it? Parts of Baltimore make you realize that The Wire really isn't exaggerating. It's important to understand, but on the other hand, that's not all there is. For what it's worth, the city also has some good museums. Enough, at any rate, to make it worth a weekend trip, if you're into that kind of thing.

I've been to three museums in Baltimore: the BMA, the Walters, and the American Visionary. The Walters I've been to a couple of times before, but we didn't go this time, so I won't blog it. The AVAM I'll try to get to soon. Meanwhile: the BMA.

My overall impression is that it's not well-rounded enough to make it one of the great museums, but some of its collections are world class, and they make it well worth a trip.

The Cone Collection is probably the best part. Some really first-rate work by Picasso, Matisse, and their contemporaries. The highlight for me was a room that recreates one end of one of the rooms in the Cone Sisters' apartment, so you can get an idea of what this art looked like in its natural habitat. Quite revealing, even decadent. I firmly believe great art should be available for public viewing, which conversely gives the idea of the private collection sort of the thrill of vice for me...and like most vice, I wouldn't want to do it, but it's fun to look at sometimes.

The Cone Collection proper is complemented by some choice modernist works in other rooms, both adjacent and on the floor below. Some good representative Surrealists, a fun Klee (is there any other kind? asks Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki). Some Bellows that was a revelation if all you know is his boxers and New York street scenes.

But I also found - and this was true last time I visited the BMA, before I really developed the distrust of the modern that I've sunk into now - that their collection of European masters was quite exciting, if not necessarily all that voluminous. A couple of Halses, a Rembrandt or two, a couple of wonderful van Dycks, and the like.

The special exhibit on right now is Franz West. About whom I'll freely admit I knew nothing before we got there. Very intriguing exhibit. It got me liking things I never thought I'd like. Such as The Ego and the Id (check the link; look at the slideshow; watch the assembly video). You really have to sit in it before you start to get it; when I did, I decided I disagreed with the wall label that said the pink one is the id and the multicolored one the ego. I think they're both the id. Also I liked Mirror in the Cabinet with Adaptives: you pick up this oddly shaped objet and go into this cubicle with a full-length mirror on the wall. Don't worry: nobody can see you. And before you know it, you're doing weird things with the objet. Twirling it like a baton, shouldering it like a musket, whatever. Thing is, the things are so curiously made, with such perfect heft and provocative form, that you can't help but want to play with them.

Play. Like. That's about where I'm going to leave it with West. I'm sure there's something more complicated going on - his 2D work, collages and paintings, make your brow hurt with the insistence that There's Something More Complicated Going On (rather than earning your interest) - but his sculptures are real friendly, while somehow escaping the wiseass feeling that a lot of interactive installations give me. So: I played. I liked.