Thursday, June 08, 2006

Baltimore, more more

On Sunday Thom and I took a day trip to Baltimore to see the American Museum of Visionary Art. It's a great museum: the whole sensibility of the place is incredible- it starts when you are outside, and you climb into a tree-fort sculpture and look out the window..

You can look through the hole at a huge kinetic sculpture that is made of tons of little windmills that turn and shift with the changing breeze.

Or you can stick your head out the window and make a dignified face.

There's also a beautiful tree.

And the place in covered in mirrors. Like this one that is reflecting my nose.

Inside the museum on the third floor there were these amazing paper cut pieces by Ku Shulan, nicknamed Monkey, who worked in a traditional form of Chinese paper cutting.

But not the usual traditional form of Chinese paper cutting, which is like this.

Ku Shulan's pieces in the museum are huge- one of them is about 9' tall, and they're all made of tiny overlapping shapes of paper that look like they were cut out with nail scissors. They're amazingly intricate, and one hopes she had lots and lots of exacto knives and a tricky way of sharpening her nail scissors. But no. Big scissors, says the wall text. It's astounding. This is her work.

These pieces don't reproduce well, and there are no big images to be found on the web, but they're incredible in person. All the color is collaged bits of shiny paper, and they are hugely detailed. And funny. Look at the cats in the center of the image.

There's a great story about Ku Shulan- apparently she was in a coma for several days, and her relatives were getting ready to bury her when she woke up. The first thing she did was to ask for a pair of scissors and declare herself the Goddess of Paper Cutting. (Own it, Monkey.)

If you want to see more there's a good article about her here, a pretty cheesy site about her here, and a French site with lots of images here.

The museum has avoided a tempting element of sensationalism that you find when you read about Ku Shulan on the web. She is all over the internet as someone who "lived in a cave." Which makes her sound like a paper cutting bear.

The museum has a picture of the cave, and it's nice. Very beautiful. It's a building style in her region, and it's nicer than this.

She came from the Shanxii region in Northwest China, and the caves, which are an ancient traditional form of dwelling in the area, are still occupied, and some of them are even hotels. They're not shacks. I'd live in one. ( And lest anyone think I'm kidding about being able to live in a cave, my apartment, which I share with innumerable rodents and Thom, is 9 feet wide).

I love the whole idea of that museum- I went there because I knew it would help get me out of my art funk by showing me, for instance, the 12' long replica of the Lusitania made out of toothpicks.

The place is fabulously inspiring. Most of the people in the museum are making art outside the margins, triumphing against adversity and taking refuge in visual creations that are incredibly, sometimes crazily, good. There's a funny dynamic at work with the wall text, though. It gets a little dizzying- all this great art, all this hardship. I got touch of vertigo when I read that one fabulous artist was both mentally retarded AND psychotic.

I don't like everything that's there, but I do like the vast majority of the work, and so I was really surprised when I came across some really beginner looking Photoshop pieces by an artist named Rosie O'Donnell. Surely, I thought, not THAT Rosie- and I read the wall text, which had a by now familiar narrative of growing up in hard circumstances including foster care and an emotionally unavailable father...and then a hit TV show.

Rosie was apparently inspired to make her first artworks after 9/11. This makes me a little bit nuts. I don't begrudge her the impulse to make art, but Rosie has been at it for five years. And it shows. Everyone else in the museum had to fight for the skills that the art world demands of them. Their hard lives don't justify their art, they just make their commitment to art more impressive. Rosie's work? Not so much. I really hope she gave them a lot of money, and I hope that they went temporarily blind when they were looking at those pieces, because otherwise this was a truly poor decision. A decision so bad that it merits an explanatory tag. Such as this one.

"The American Museum of Visionary Art was recently were struck by a plague. We had funding cuts, a mouse problem and flooding in the basement. No one was giving us money. The staff contracted mold related eye diseases and raccoons moved in. Our curator went blind. The night before the bank foreclosed on the place our curator groped her way outside and went on the street begging for funds. The architects were drawing up the plans for luxury condos on our site when the funding came in- we got a large gift from well meaning celebrity Rosie O'Donnell. The pieces you see here are an artifact of our gratitude to Rosie for saving our ass. They should not be considered art, but do adequately express our gratitude to Ms. O'Donnell, who is very rich and someday hopes to become an artist worthy of this museum. We wish her the best of luck in this endeavor. "

Oh well. I still love that museum, and I bet that there is some good green reason that that art is there. It's probably an equally tragic, but much less exciting story.

We had a little time after the museum to walk around the harbor and to pay a brief visit to the Walters Museum, which is free free free to people who are members of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Walters looks great, but we didn't have enough time to see much. There's a great portrait of Mr. Walter's nobly mustachioed head sticking out above the door. That, my friends, is patronage.

When we got home I found that could not remember the names of the people who did the outdoor pieces at the Visionary Museum. I thought their website would allow me to cheat and look it all up when I got home. It didn't, but it did get me interested in the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race. The race is an incredible event. I'm going next year, and you should too. The race features amphibious vehicles like these.

I want to enter. You have to be able to build something (no check) that can float (no check), ride through mud (no check), is human powered (no check) and looks good (check! Double check!). Any engineers out there with too much time on their hands want to build the amazing kinetic badger with me?

Post script The reason rodents feature largely in this post is that they are on my mind. We traumatized one the other night. This has nothing to do with art, but it's too funny a story to hold back. Here's the background: several years ago when we were traveling through Roswell, NM, Thom's lovely sister gave us Alien Autopsy, an extraterrestrial version of the old Operation surgery game. We keep the box under our bed in preparation for drunken alien surgery bouts with his sister. Last night we were woken up in the middle of the night by a really loud and terrifying scream. A mouse had nibbled on the box, knocked the little operation tweezers on to the alien liver and set off a scream from beyond the limits of the known universe. I assume it is now freaked out inside our wall somewhere, telling the other mice that They Are Out There.

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