Sunday, July 26, 2009

And Then He Put His Hands on the Jackson Pollock Painting

Yesterday, at approximately 3:45 PM we were entering the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.  This was part of my mother's Surprise Birthday Extravaganza! that her boyfriend had orchestrated.  He'd borrowed a friend's RV for the day, and I decorated it with help from his son, the boy previously known as the possibly-gay-black-belt-son.  (I say previously not because he has disgraced himself and is no longer a master of martial arts; instead, I say previously because I no longer have my suspicions about his sexuality.  Now that he no longer sleeps on the top bunk with 100 of his favorite Beanie Babies--remember? sparkling unicorns, angel bears, and the like--he seems to be solidly pro-girl.)

So, after we surprised my mother with the RV and the bevy of snacks we'd loaded into it, we were off for the first of several stops along the extravaganza route.  We did the Buffalo Garden Walk, which took us around the city to thousands of amazing gardens in front of or behind beautiful homes downtown.  It started raining early in the afternoon, so we cut our tour short and headed to the next stop along our route: the Albright Knox Gallery.  We tailgated there for a bit--we were in an RV, after all--and drank some wine and ate some chips and let my mother open some of her birthday gifts.

After that, we headed into the art gallery.  And in the very first hallway, just several feet from the door, as the rest of the group was striding ahead, desperate to get through this at a fast click--my mother's boyfriend, his son, and my brother are notoriously anti-art--my brother spied something that caught his eye, so he stopped in front of the tall canvas.

And then he reached out and touched it.

But more than touched it.  He pressed his entire palm against it, and leaned into it a bit, testing the canvas's give, its strength, its texture.

It was a Jackson Pollock painting.  I almost had a heart attack.

"ADAM!" I hissed, and in the quiet of that gallery that hiss was pretty loud.  Everyone--our party and the several other groups that were milling about the abstract wing--turned to look at me, the girl who hissed, and Adam, the boy who was leaning against a Jackson Pollock painting.

"What?" my brother said.


My brother looked all put out, but he did take his hand off the painting.  "Oh, Jess," he said.  "Chill out."  

"Chill out?" I closed the distance between us, so that I was standing right next to him and able to hiss at him all I wanted without other people wondering if I was yelling at a poor retarded boy who didn't know you can't put your hands on a Jackson Pollock painting.  "Adam, you cannot, cannot, cannot touch art in museums."

"Well, I didn't know that," he said.  "How was I supposed to know that?"

"Are you stupid?"

"Listen, it doesn't say I can't touch it," he said, "so how am I supposed to know I shouldn't touch it?"

"How about using your head?" I said.  "This is an expensive piece of art by a famous artist.  What do you think would happen to it if everyone just came up to it and put their hands all over the canvas?"

He frowned.  "Fine," he said.  "Whatever.  And it's not very good anyway.  I mean, I could do that.  I could splatter paint on a canvas and make it look disgusting."

I sighed.  He sounded just like one of my students.  

But he'd already moved on, and he and his girlfriend were standing in front of another canvas.

"How is that art? It's nothing," he said, loudly, and some of the other people sent him withering glances.

"Ssssh," I said.  I needled him in the ribs.  "Here.  I'll ask you the same thing I'd ask my students if they said that to me.  Break it down into its parts.  What do you see?  Consider the colors, the brushstrokes, the shapes.  What does it evoke?"

He considered the painting for a minute and then he said, "A sunny day.  I see the horizon and a big sky.  I see the sun."

"See?" I said.  "That's a lot more specific than saying 'this is nothing,' isn't it?"

"I still think I could've painted it," he grumbled, "but whatever."

Around the next corner, my brother reached out and flicked a light switch that was part of an installation piece.


He turned around and narrowed his eyes at me.  "Jeff just did it, too," he said, speaking of my mother's boyfriend, who had gone past the installation before Adam.

I wanted to die.  I wanted to curl up in the corner and wait until they had gone through the gallery so I could make my way through not in the wake of them, the group who was saying loudly, "Wow, that's a real piece of crap!" or "Holy shit! People actually pay money for this?" all while flicking and touching or leaning against the artwork.  (Later, when we were in the upstairs gallery, which featured a room that was filled with giant sculptures of tables and chairs, my mother's boyfriend leaned against one of the chairs and was scolded by one of the guards.)

But curling up in a corner and praying they would forget I was with them was not really an option.  I had to follow them--at a safe distance, so it might look to others like perhaps I was just a girl going through the museum by herself, and not with those crazy people in front of her. 

In another of the lower galleries, my brother dragged me over to a piece that featured long pendulums of different color rocking around and converging to make new colors every time.  

"LOOK," he said, pointing to the floor.  Underneath the pendulums were the words PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH.  "See?" he said.  "If there's something they don't want you to touch, they label it accordingly."

"You are a moron," I said.  

And then he bounded off to get his girlfriend, so they could go stand in another wing and whisper about how ridiculous they thought this was, how stupid it was to call some of this stuff art, and I wandered off on my own so I could stop in front of each of the paintings without feeling the cold breeze that kicked up as the rest of the members of my party jogged by without even the smallest of critical glances at what we had come to see.

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