Monday, July 6, 2009

Please don't sit on the art

I work at the Frye Art Museum.

Cat’s out of the bag. Not literally though, cats are not allowed in the museum. That is unless they are service animals. Which, actually is not all that uncommon, some cats provide valuable service needs to folks, although it can be a bit surprising to see a leashed feline walking around 19th century paintings (it certainly caught me off guard). Sorry I digress…I mention that I work at the Frye because to this point I have tried to keep the location of my museum guarding secret, so as to ward off my immense fan club. However, I grow weary of sharing insight and stories about “the museum”, as “Frye” is much shorter. Plus as an esteemed local critic pointed out to me, “everyone knows you work at the Frye”.

Now working at the Frye, as I do, I have heard a lot of unexpected questions through the years and one that I dread the most is:

“Is that art?”

I fear it almost as much as its companion, “where is the art?” (often asked of a patron standing adjacent to the “missing” art”). If a piece isn’t a painting, photography, drawing, or sculpture the public often doesn’t know whether or not they are looking at art. The rise of mixed media, non-traditional materials, installation, performance art and all the things that blur the lines between may be to blame. Surely this is the reason that a man asked me one day, when looking into a gallery with paint buckets and ladders strew about, if it was an installation piece. I informed him that we were actually installing a new show. “Who can tell anymore?” he asked with a shrug.

I have the upmost respect for the art-viewing public, even when they don’t know if they are viewing art, and I always try to talk about the art in question, often citing art history, the context of the show, and curatorial vision. However it can be a challenge at times to explain some of our works, especially to folks who have never sat through a slide lecture on Post Modernism or Pop Surrealism.

The Frye currently has a piece installed that seems to confuse a great deal of people about whether or not it is art. It is called Gussied Up and it is by the artist Mike Kelley as part of the excellent, entertaining show currently on display, The Puppet Show (through Sept 13th). Now Mike Kelley is a huge name in the
contemporary art world. He has shown all over the world, has a nice big Phaidon catalog published, did a Sonic Youth album cover and generally has had all the artistic success I can only dream of. This particular work of his is a large piece, situated in the center of a large room. It is essentially a huge table, with some smaller pieces of furniture on top of it. Additionally, there are a few small articles of doll clothing hanging from the pieces of furniture. Does this sound like art to you?

Well it is, very much so. As you may recall, I am involved with Security at the museum and it’s my job to see to it that art does not get damaged, let alone touched. My word what a headache this piece is! Many people seem incapable of walking by this work without running their hands along the wood table, or tugging at one of the little shirts. Even one of our volunteers couldn’t resist adjusting this little jacket that hangs from a vice, despite the protests of guards. I gave him an earful I’ll have you know.

Now Kelley work is not my favorite piece in the show (probably the Kentridge piece holds that honor-it’s mesmerizing) but I get paid the same to protect all of the art and the inability of folks to hold back their tactile desire is infuriating. But here’s the question-why do people touch that Kelley piece so much more often than the traditional paintings from the collection?

And why to they look so confused when I ask them to please not touch the art?
A lot is given away with that look-an embarrassed, sudden understanding that in fact, this table is a work of art, (which explains why it is in the middle of a museum with people staring at it and guards watching it) and that they just fondled a work of art for without a second thought. Well, at least they didn’t pull up a chair and sit down for a meal.

Speaking of sitting, this reminds me of a show we had a few years ago but the artist I’ll just call S. S had a few rooms in the front galleries at the Frye and in one of them she had 3 works on display: large painting on paper that spilled onto the floor, a video work projected on a wall, and sculptural/installation work on the floor. This work looked a great deal like a large, black box kite with some items inside of the body of the work-notable a neatly stacked pile of unlabeled tin can goods. Not exactly a traditional looking sculpture. Do you have a good image of this work in your mind? Okay picture the scene…

A lady, walks into the gallery with the box kite work. She seems very interested in the projected video but needs a place to sit and rest while she watches. Well how about this bench over here, that looks perfect! But wait….next thing you know, the bench, which was not a bench at all, collapses, her feet are up in the air, and she is on her back, executing a rather graceful, maneuver to right herself amongst much ruckus and tin cans rolling every which way. Now fortunately the lady was just fine, and the art was completely repairable with no lasting damage. After my heart stopped pounding in my chest I was fine too.

Do you think she thought that was art? Or a good place to take a load off?
Art History is full of examples of artists pushing the boundaries of what art can and should be-Dada, Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Hirst, etc etc…the list goes on and on…you’d think that the question of what art is and could be would get stagnant after so much time and energy has been devoted to answering it, but clearly it will never go away. And clearly people still can’t always tell if something is art or not. So the next time you go to a museum remember this:


things that are art in the museum:

-anything in a frame
-anything with a label next to it
-anything behind a stanchion or on a pedestal
-anything that a guard is standing by
-anything that is in a room by itself

things that are not art in the museum:

-fire extinguishers
-exit signs
-drinking fountains
-the other “fountains” in the men’s room (if they had “R.Mutt” signed on them them it would be different story)
-outlets (you know, those holes in the walls that you plug stuff into)
-real wood benches (usually-but not the one that has the puppets on it-that IS art-stay OFF!)
-the seismographs on the floor. Oh and they aren’t seismographs either, they are Hygrathermographs
-the guards (but don’t touch them either)


Erin Stuart said...

I enjoyed reading this. Nice work Ryan!

sharonA said...


Ryan, great post!

I took notes, so I know what to do next time (no touching guards, don't steal the seismograph to make robots, check).