My Glorious Grand Rapids Afternoon at ArtPrize

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This afternoon I visited Grand Rapid’s beautiful art museum (GRAM) for their yearly art exhibition, Art/Prize, that includes work by one of my writing students, and though I arrived somewhat frazzled, I left in a state of deep contentment verging on joy.

That’s not surprising. I love museums. My parents often took me to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Modern Art when I was in elementary school. And I grew up just a few blocks away from an extraordinary complex of museums in upper Manhattan on Audubon Terrace. These stately Beaux Arts buildings at the time housed the American Indian Museum, The Hispanic Society Museum, The American Numismatic Society and The American Geographic Society, along with other organizations.

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There were sculptures in the courtyard between the twin ranks of buildings and the quiet grace and beauty of the complex offered a haven, as well as a deeper entrance into the glamorous style of the Gilded Age that I already admired without knowing what it was. I would learn years later that I had lived in an elegant 1903 apartment building and the public library I borrowed books from every week was designed by Stanford White’s architectural firm.

I didn’t just enter the buildings on Audubon Terrace, I passed them hundreds of times growing up–they were the comforting backdrop of my childhood.

But in Grand Rapids, my GPS seemed to have HAL in 2001: a Space Odyssey as its role model, and so I drove confusedly along unfamiliar streets past swirling crowds. I actually needed someone at the museum to guide me over my phone to a parking structure that wasn’t full. Truly Old School.

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So I arrived at GRAM feeling surly and put-upon, but within moments, I was transformed. Moving slowly and quietly from one floor to another, entering different worlds evoked by artists I didn’t know but whose work I quickly felt drawn to, my having been lost melted away.

Not everything spoke to me, and I didn’t expect it to. But when something did, even the people around me blurred and seemed unreal, their voices coming as from a distance, because the art I was pulled into was that alive and powerful. As a writer, I think I’m drawn to art that either tells a story (whether obvious or not) or makes metell a story, makes me invent meaning, play a game sometimes, or find my way out of the Minotaur’s maze before it’s too late.

I didn’t read Anila Agha’s explanation of her hypnotic “Intersections” until I got home because I was happy to just let it beguile me. Hung from the ceiling, the giant black, lacy, laser-cut cube with one light bulb inside projected complex shadows on the floor, walls, ceiling and the people who walked around it. I found this piece exhilarating, simple and complex, open and closed. Here’s one of the shadows.

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Marshall K. Harris’s “The burden of honoring one’s father” was starker and more disturbing, and I could sense people both drawn to it and repelled. I waited patiently for a space to clear in front of it so I could study it alone, for a few moments, at least. It made me think of how my father still had the ability to push my buttons. He had, after all, installed them, and a recent conversation had left me feeling almost as raw as the wood in Harris’s stark, compelling painting.

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Liz Roberts “Always Nowhere” was a car with films of roads whizzing by playing on the windows and I immediately thought of the title of The Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere,” though that song is mellow and Roberts’ dark car was menacing. The car was sealed, enigmatic. How many trips do we take like that where motion is all that matters or even registers? I wondered if Roberts had actually put something inside…. The idea appealed to me.

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Danielle Owensby’s work charts different aspects of growing up in a house that seemed in perpetual upheaval, constantly being rebuilt and never finished. It was a neighborhood eyesore and topic of discussion. In the midst of this tumult, she poses herself in eight scenes with the heavily ironic serenity of Marina Abramovic. These eight stunning photographs are sometimes drenched with color, and the artists finds mysterious beauty in the quotidian.

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My drive back happily couldn’t have been simpler, and reflecting on these artists and the whole experience, I felt grateful that a museum like GRAM was only a little over an hour away from my home. And I thought of Henry James’s famous lines in a letter to H.G. Wells: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance…and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”

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