Friday, September 26, 2008

Confronted by art on a rainy afternoon








(This is Mary.)

I took today off and this afternoon, I decided to visit the Guggenheim. There were two main exhibits there (in addition to the permanent collections): one by Louise Bourgeois, a French artist who is now 96 years old; and another by Catherine Opie, an American photographer who happens to be my age, exactly (47). The links will take you to reviews of these two exhibits in the NY Times.

As for my review ...

I always enjoy the feeling of being pushed, pulled, stunned and shocked by art. Louise Bourgeois' work on display at the Guggenheim alternates between the truly bizarre to nearly lascivious to painfully true. Her sculptures are evocative and provocative, making one ponder the origins of human beings--even before there was such a thing as a womb--through birth, sexuality, and into the pain of all that is human about we humans.

That's not to say I loved every piece; I did not. And while I was viewing these sculptures and other creations, I had a peculiar feeling in the pit of my stomach that made me physically uncomfortable much of the time. It wasn't until I left the museum that some of the works really impacted me: particularly a group of installations called Cells. These were various doors and windows grouped into circles into which you had to peer ... and view various objects inside, like mirrors, waxen hands, clothing, bits of who knows what. On listening to the accompanying audio tour, I learned that the first word the artist used to describe this series of installations was "pain." My feeling exactly.

They are hard to describe. But imagine where you hold your pain, and how hard you try to keep it hidden. What does that pain look like? A broken mirror? A pair of hands holding tightly to each other? A bit of children's clothing that's yellowed with age?

Meanwhile, Catherine Opie's photography was jarring in a completely different way. Her candid approach to her subjects is disarming and tough. Her portraits on display were of people she calls "in her queer community," and they illustrate more than I could ever describe in words (but I'll try): the separateness of this community, the way many people in it try to set themselves apart through their dress, piercings, and/or a gender-bending way of dressing. So much in their eyes ... what they endure on a daily basis in a society that simply doesn't accept them.

By far the most serious of the portraits were those of herself, which included a "cutting" she made into her own back of a family made of two stick figures, women, in front of a cute little house--but blood was streaming from the wounds. Another cutting was done by a professional artist, the word "pervert" literally carved into the artist's chest--a permanent scar, as I saw in another self portrait done a few years later, of her nursing her baby son. (The one with the bloody "pervert" message also has her arms stuck with more hypodermic needles than I wanted to count, and a black leather mask over face. I read that much of her work confronts the HIV epidemic and the government's lack of adequate response.)

In addition to these crazy-mad portraits, I was impressed by some landscapes of ice houses in bleak whiteness (shot on a frozen lake in northern Minnesota), and a series of shots of surfers in Malibu.

While I envy the talents of artists, I don't envy the pain they must visit so often in order to achieve their art. I'm impressed that Louise Bourgeois has lived such a long life ... so many artists die young, it seems.

I'm including a few snapshots of the afternoon. The tree limbs reminded me of Bourgeois' "Spider Couple," pictured here.

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