Monday, February 27, 2012

art communion: buddha

Last week's art communion was with this glowing Buddha Shakyamuni from Burma (early 20th century). He stands in a dimly lit gallery devoted to images of the Buddha in modern Theravada traditions, and is one of many artworks here that were commissioned and donated to Buddhist temples and monasteries to bring merit to the donor and their loved ones on special occasions. This may explain why this figure is more ornate than one might usually expect from a Buddhist sculpture. He's carved from wood, gilded with shimmery gold, and inlaid with glass details in his robes and headband. He's somewhat opulent; perhaps as a way of showing the dedication and devotion of those who donated him to the temple. Of course you always want to give the very best.

This Buddha is exceedingly graceful, and perhaps even gracious in his pose. His elegant drapery hangs loosely on his long slender frame, and his delicate hands hold his garment out almost in a gesture of courtsey. Although his body is slight, his face is still pleasantly round with folds of flesh under his chin. The reddish pigment combined with the gold gives him a very warm, earthy appearance, embellished with small blue flowers of inlaid glass. His bare feet stand upon a lotus blossom. Perhaps due simply to the passage of time, his face retains the most gilding, and is thus his most radiant feature, with that ever-present gentle smile of transcendence.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

art communion: reliquary bust

Today I visited this Flemish Reliquary Bust, ca. 1510. I've always loved her beauty and serenity. She's carved from wood, with polychrome paint and gilding enlivening her features: rouged cheeks and red lips, sorrowful green eyes, golden tresses braided and coiled up beneath her headdress. She has a bit of an under-bite, giving her almost a double-chin, and her mouth puckers out like a duck bill.

She's incredibly life-like even five hundred years later, although somewhat stiff in that medieval-early-Renaissance way. The pigment on her skin is full of tiny cracks, with major losses on her nose and chin, but they don't detract from her naturalism. They may even enhance it. A security officer said she was "creepy," and the fact that she's a reliquary probably only adds to that. Was something of significance hidden inside this bust? Perhaps a former possession of the sitter, or a body part? I don't know. Reliquaries are generally damn creepy, but I love her. She's very narrow from the side -- almost two-dimensional -- but so beautiful from front and back. Her headpiece is almost like a helmet, and her Rapunzel hair seems to go on forever.

There she rests, day in and day out, gazing out at her medieval neighbors and passing visitors, yet clearly lost in a world and time of her own. One of the side effects of spending time in the galleries is interacting with the public. Mostly that's a good thing. I love hearing people's thoughts about the art they're seeing, however naive or emotional or philosophical. I love that they're coming to an art museum of their own volition (most of them), looking for some kind of enrichment or stimulation. I love being able to answer their random questions and connect with them about works of art made by our predecessors through the ages. I need to move toward the public side of museums. Being behind the scenes has its excitement, but the real turn-on is how art (or animals, history, or whatever subject) can connect you to your fellow human beings, both living and dead.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

art communion: skull rack

Today I spent some time with this Skull Rack (agiba) from Papua New Guinea, ca. 1925. I know next to nothing about the cultures who created this art, but I pass through the Oceanic gallery on a daily basis, and it's always one of my favorite collections to see at other museums too. Perhaps because it IS so enigmatic to my uneducated eyes. Why is this skull rack guy smiling, for example? Is that even meant to be a smile? He looks very cheery to me, but perhaps I'm misinterpreting something. His backside is unfinished, and the base is worn. I assume he was perhaps attached to, or embedded in, some kind of wall or structure, and would stand upright ready to receive new skulls.

This agiba is made of wood, with big round eyes, and patterns resembling scales, feathers, flames, or waves carved into his sides/arms/ribs. The center of his torso looks like an upside down fish, with that ominous black hole in the center, mirroring the black circles of his eyes. His eyebrow looks like a boomerang. There are three skulls attached to him with cords, and one empty harness awaiting a fourth skull. Apparently people would attach the skulls of their enemies and/or their ancestors to such an object, and each skull is modified with mud elongating their noses and cowrie shells for eyes.

The Oceanic galleries are very humid. I don't know if this is intentional -- to create that tropical island environment -- or merely a result of poor air circulation. The walls are light with a faint pattern of dripping paint, which is honestly a little bit creepy. And of course there are the bizarre green benches which I think most people presume they're not supposed to use, but they're quite comfortable! One whole wall is windows, which gives the gallery a very pleasant atmosphere, but it's also a tease, inviting you out into a sculpture garden full of trees and Rodin sculptures, but offering no obvious way to get there.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

art communion: smoke

My new goal is to spend 15 minutes each day in the galleries with ART, communing with an individual artwork. My hope is that this will help remind me why I work in art museums (which one sometimes forgets during moments of frustration and exasperation), and will also offer me at least one moment each day for quiet reflection and pseudo meditation. Art enriches the mind and soul, and there's TONS of it all around me if I only take the time to "look."

My first encounter is with Tony Smith's Smoke, 1967. Yes, it's obvious. I walk around and under it virtually every single day, as do many other staff members and visitors. It dominates the Ahmanson atrium, almost too massive and dynamic to be contained by its walls. It's big and black, bold and powerful, geometric and organic. It's scale and simplicity are pleasing visually, physically, and psychologically. It's my favorite type of sculpture: mid-century minimalism on a grand scale.

Smoke forces you to interact with it by its sheer size and imposition. It could be lovely outdoors, but in the atrium it confronts you, expanding within its limited space, bursting at the seams, ready to escape its holding cage. The hexagonal spaces it creates resemble honeycomb, and the continuous flow of people beneath its legs are like busy bees coming and going from the hive. I love this work, and I will cry if it ever leaves.

Monday, February 6, 2012

cousins-once-removed (or some such thing)

Sometimes the loss of old connections can bring about new connections. Since my parents' passing (and as a direct result of said sad events), I've made some new friends, forged deeper relationships with some existing friends and family across generations, and found a whole new crop of cousins. There's a whole slew of cousins from my Dad's generation, and a couple from Mom's side, who are now my facebook buddies. I'd met them all a few times over the years, but we never had any direct relationship to speak of, and it's been decades since I'd laid eyes on any of them. Now they're all around, and they're quite an amusing bunch, full of humor, insights, and support. They mostly live in Texas, so I doubt we'll ever spend much time together, but it's nice knowing they're out there. Kin. Blood.


I'm compelled to keep traveling. I get depressed and moody if I don't have a trip on the calendar or in the works. It's something to look forward to and plan for, from the smallest weekend getaway to a trip to Italy to get married. Part of this is obviously feeding my desire to continually escape reality; at least certain aspects of reality. It feels better to be outside of the usual mundanity of life, on holiday somewhere different, away from the daily patterns that wear on me so. It doesn't even have to be a "vacation." Any excuse to leave town and escape routine is a welcome change.

Since September 2010, I've been to San Francisco 4 times, Texas twice, San Diego 500 times, Italy, and Hawaii. I just booked a trip to Seattle for March, and I hope to plan a trip to Portland later this year, and ideally Christmas in Hawaii again (Oahu and/or Kauai this time). Of course money is always a concern, but I just can't worry about that right now.