Leah Gallant (MAVCS 2020) is the arts editor at F Newsmagazine.
Like Brad Pitt, she is mostly made of water.
Illustration by Shannon Lewis
The museum had not yet announced that it would close, but I could tell it would come soon.
I passed through the Impressionist galleries. The museum-goers looked like they were walking on shards of glass, picking carefully around the paintings, looking over their shoulders warily. At every cough and every sneeze, the heads pirouetted in unison. It was March 13, 2020.
I wanted to look at something in person, an object that would transmit something to me, looking as close as the vitrine or beeping line would allow. I wanted looking at art to help before it was sealed up indefinitely in its house, just as I would be in mine.
I passed a small and brushy painting of two cats, and I thought, yes: that is one thing I could concentrate on, appreciating the demonic cat whom I live with.
I passed La Grande Jatte, and I photographed it to prove how empty the space in front of it was.
The one piece I wanted to see most was this 17th century beer stein. The stein is fantastic because the rabbits and the hunters, in a humorous turn of events, have changed places, and now the pursuers are the pursued, running in a tight spiral path along the length of the glass, like a barber’s striped pole.
Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
It wasn’t on view, and now the museums are closed. I tried to look for it online. I am not interested in pretending the experience of viewing art digitally is equivalent to looking at it IRL. Let me be perfectly clear: looking at art through a computer screen sucks. But I am trying to be optimistic, and one of the possibilities presented by digital viewership is a curatorial force that elides the normal boundary lines drawn in encyclopedic art museums. Things are neither on view nor off view, neither located in Modern & Contemporary nor Medieval. It is the search engine that curates. Things are all jumbled together, grouped for a moment by keyword and terms that resemble it. This makes for an OULIPO-like viewing experience. When I searched “rabbit,” eventually I got to images of rabbis instead.
I thought about the meat market, and bats.
I thought about an artwork by Francis Alÿs, “The Nightwatch,” a video shot on security cameras of a fox set loose among the paintings of stuffy men in wigs of London’s empty National Portrait Gallery. Against the parquet flooring, the fox’s hurrying little legs, seen from cameras at ceiling level, make it look like a house centipede. It runs into a gallery and stops in the middle of the room and turns around.
I thought of penguins roaming around the aquarium.
I thought about animals in empty places people built because it’s a way to think about the pandemic without thinking about it head-on. On the subject’s periphery, there are bizarre stories of rats filling the streets of New Orleans and dolphins returning to Venice.
Digital viewership offers a curatorial force that elides the normal boundary lines
drawn in encyclopedic art museums.
When it happens in art, when it happens in a stein or a video document, it has an Old Testament resonance, like a plague of frogs or locusts.
But all these imply a vision of “the natural” as awe-inspiring and uncontainable, as though there were something a little beautiful about the pandemic, which cannot be true. Past the periphery, where the guy is running a marathon on his balcony, there is an ice rink in Spain converted into a mass morgue, there are doctors and nurses being handed Yankees rain ponchos to use as PPE, there is the fact that 70% of the people in Chicago who have died from coronavirus are black, that it took a pandemic for Detroit to turn water back on for households who had fallen behind on bills, and that the incarcerated men producing New York City’s in-house hand sanitizer, New York State Clean, are being paid 65 cents an hour for a product they cannot use.
I am not speaking in order of events, because there is no temporal order in a museum, just as there is none in a memory.
One thing the rabbit stein has in common with all this is that it resides in this country, which is the richest country on earth.
I don’t feel up to the act of appreciation right now. I want images to distract me or entrance me or lull me to sleep.
Images that distract me: I used to think clickbait was the visual equivalent of potato chips: not only addictive and high in the bad kinds of fat, but also morally deviant to engage with. But now my cupboard is stacked with chips, and I am allowed to click through whatever I want. Try Not To Laugh At These Epic Wedding Photo Fails; The Nighttime Snack That Will Help You Build Muscle As You Sleep; He Was The Love Of Her Life For 26 Years, But Then He Found This; Cops Enter Foul-Smelling Home, Then They Saw The Floor Move — I’ve clicked them all.
The images are good when you isolate them, too. Maybe I should commit to this: rather than dragging myself off to a virtual museum, going instead for a good, long, gazey stroll through the local clickbait.
This one shows a closeup of a chin covered in shaving cream, but then inside the shaving cream there were these bas relief figures, like the chin were a neoclassical pediment.
The stove in my apartment once burnt my roommate’s eyelashes off. She was turning on the gas and leaning into the oven — it has to be lit manually — and the flame jumped out and singed off her eyelashes and the fuzz of hair on her left temple.
The stove is a brilliant powder blue, like an exaggerated sky, and it has the fifties curves of the hind flanks of a Rolls Royce. It is the blue of industrial-strength innocence and automotive finish and hospital blankets given to baby boys. It is the blue of a mediocre surgical mask, the flimsy kind, which has a little more white in it than the blue of a latex glove. I try to surround myself with variations of this color. It is the blue of my grandmother’s Scottish mohair scarf.
Like most things one lives with and grows accustomed to, I have been forgetting to admire our stove.
It is like the Jetson Family’s robot: It was the fifties’ best shot at futuristic aesthetics, but now it looks thoroughly like the decade it was designed to escape.
But now, I sit and face it all the time, and make microscopic drawings in my notebook of paintings I’d like to make when the wherewithal returns.