I visited my familiar Portland Art Museum yesterday. A midweek visit in March allowed me the experience of being alone with the art, at least for brief stretches of time. How I love that experience. I was exploring the contemporary tower and noting some new additions, when a gallery attendant quietly approached and said, “Excuse me ma’am, I just need to point out that, past that partition there, you’ll find some controversial art that some people find disturbing. So viewing is up to your discretion.”
This was new. I thanked him and had to control my impulse to make a mad dash toward whatever was behind that partition. My thoughts were racing. Controversial art. That label usually involves A) a penis B) desecrated religious iconography C) bodily secretions D) violence inflicted on animals and humans, sub-category: on women E) bold expression from any minority viewpoint. But maybe this was something different, something newly controversial. Just imagine!
As I walked past the partition, my glance quickly scanned a few pieces that had no obvious controversy and then I saw – a narrative nightmare sculpture about childhood sexual abuse, ugly on several levels, containing elements A and D with plenty of C. Not something I want to look at for any length of time; but definitely, defiantly art. A tragic, affecting portrait of a rotted human soul and the damage done. (Kienholtz, Bear Chair, 1991) The kind of art that has nothing whatsoever to do with “liking” it.
When I finished looking, I started wondering why that attendant had stopped ME. Sure, I’m a middle-aged woman, but does that mean I must be warned about art outside of the Impressionist wing? Why, I’ll have you know, young man, I’ve conversed with many a modern canvas and I intend to become a white-haired gallery haunter wearing far too much jewelry – much of it purchased from art museum gift stores – pointing at the Jeff Koons placard and yelling, “That little creep still owes me money!”
Then I snapped out of that little tangent and asked myself, “What have I ever found disturbing in an art museum?” Certainly I’ve encountered art that I find icky, but I can choose to look at it or not. I’ve encountered art that gives me some insight into the artist that causes me to shudder. I’ve encountered art that I refuse to take in, for whatever reason my mood dictates.
But if I listed all the things that disturb me in this world, none of it would involve art museums.
Upon reflection, I concluded that the only thing that has ever disturbed me in an art museum is other museum goers. And so I savored my museum visit midweek in March, when the building was blissfully under-populated. Anytime I can be face-to-face with real art, undisturbed, I feel like I’ve stolen an extra moment from the clock.
In case my blog disturbed you, excuse me ma’am, meet my favorite Buddha at PAM.