Winter Is For Sleuthing At Your Local Museum

Tore 031203 2 (By Erik Holmstedt)
Tore 031203 2 (By Erik Holmstedt)

Museums are temples that explain a culture but they can be intimidating—you may feel you don’t belong, you’re not on ‘the’ board.  Guards can be rude and staff with badges saunter through galleries making visitors uneasy. You may have read about fundraising galas where beautiful people, wearing black ties and sparkling jewelry, drink pastel cocktails. Large sums of bragging float on bubbles of champagne. A recent Vanity Fair article discussed the Metropolitan Museum’s recent gala–Leonard Lauder was being honored for donating his billion dollar Cubist masterpieces. Just think, every Clinique lipstick put more Picassos and Legers on Fifth Avenue. An invitation meant at least getting a glimpse of Barbara Walters and Princess Firyal of Jordan. I Googled the Met’s membership levels; the highest is 2,500 bucks/yearly which still doesn’t let you hug Ms. Walters.

By now you must be saying, why even bother to enter these cultural meccas, they don’t want me? Think of museums as theatrical productions where everyone has a part to play. The paintings and sculpture are actors. They need ‘angels’ who donate. But the circle of wealthy donors can’t supply ‘the roar of the greasepaint/ the smell of the crowd.’ That’s where you, Joe/Jane-museum-goer, become the audience.  The public buys memberships, meets friends for lunch, and purchases souvenirs at the ‘exiting gift shop.’ Without an audience, there would be no big-wigs.  So, don’t sell yourself short, you are the museum-personality who employs the curatorial staff, janitors, and those with unending patience who retouch masterpieces using magnifiers and Q-tips. I have been eating lunch at the Met for over fifty years. Although the main restaurant has left the Greek and Roman statuary for a more efficient basement cafeteria, it is comforting to remember that generations of my family have ascended the iconic Neoclassical facade to see the B. Altman Rembrandts.

Threading Through the Gravel Bars, East Fork of the Toklat (2005). (By Linda Beach)
Threading Through the Gravel Bars, East Fork of the Toklat (2005). (By Linda Beach)

Back in Anchorage, it was a cold, grey January. Husband Dave and I had been organizing office files since New Year’s. We needed to leave the emails and head to our Anchorage Museum for some color and texture and do some aesthetic sleuthing. Being an art detective doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything put before you. And happily, nobody cares about what you wear; being unobtrusive has advantages.  In my grandmother’s day you wouldn’t be caught at the Met without your corset, and even in the fifties I couldn’t go into New York City without my bowler hat and Mary Jane patent leathers.

Linda. (By Gary Postlethwait)
Linda. (By Gary Postlethwait)

Here’s how to enjoy your local museum. Start by picking up a floor plan. Smaller museums save paper by displaying wall maps on walls or putting information online. Assess the size of your museum. Some big city museums are too big to take in everything in one day. The Anchorage Museum’s school bus yellow ‘help desk’ has friendly staff; good idea to coat-check.

Dave and I elevated to the fourth floor and began with the exhibit Cabin Fever (thru February 15). When entering a gallery, take a deep breath and relax.  Reading wall tags can be fatiguing and detract from enjoying shapes and colors; I save details for my second look. I began by donning my metaphorical ‘museum feet’ noticing impressionistically that Cabin Fever showed photographs, video installations and two mega wallpaper-esque photos—one of  Northern Lights, the other a cabin and four wheeler deep in snow. A faux rec room with ’70s brownish furniture and an old braided rug allowed viewers to watch a looping segment of Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush, 1942.

We headed one flight down to six videos, It Could Go Either Way: Marian Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly (thru March 1). I have a friend who jokes that video installations may not appeal but are a good place to ‘take a load off.’ One film showed two women conversing in an old house that lacked furnishings. Ear phones let listeners hear a woman’s voice reading what seemed like a novel that didn’t match the dilapidated home atmosphere—maybe on purpose. Other projections showed nymph-esque women dancing in woodsy settings while others danced through a building under construction. A video about a day in urban Sharjah caught our attention for a later look.

Across the hall was Ashley Lohr’s solo exhibition, Perceptions (thru March 1) of hard edged color abstracts. Some were on stretched canvases, others were hung from dowels like scrolls, another appeared to be repainted paint chips. Colors seemed raw and unconnected; again we would return.

We descended to the second floor where Voices of the Wilderness (thru February 8), a Park Service traveling exhibition, showed artwork inspired by experiencing the Alaskan wilderness. Government maps celebrating the 1964 Alaska Wilderness Act seem to overtake the photographs and paintings.

American Beauty (2009). (By Ashley Lohr)
American Beauty (2009). (By Ashley Lohr)

By now we had been walking for several hours. It was time to let all the imagery sink in. We found the coffee shop and ordered tea and cookies enjoying the museum’s fountain, cascading staircase and glass cupola. While bigger cities offer larger, trendier, shows, local museums can be more contemplative, and sometimes you find old friends on walls.

Around the atrium, Rarefied Light (thru February 22), a photography exhibition, caught my attention.  Gary Postlethwait’s Alaskan landscape, Linda, an Alaskan scene of a lake with backstory mountains had been superimposed by a tourist climbing a ladder in heels while lugging a suitcase. The ladder, which has no ground, cuts the picture plane disrupting the original mountainous focal point as it continues upwards off the picture plane. The ladder behaves as a grid, segmenting imagery between its rungs the way frames of celluloid movie strips did—photographic memories stir within the larger frame. The climbing figure plays tricks with reality much like a Duane Hanson sculpture. What is Postlethwait alluding to…out of place tourists… out of place places? Well, it works.  And thank you Cezanne for fracking a composition. Fun to reconnect with old friends–I remembered Gary on swim team bleachers decades ago when our daughters were competitive swimmers.

Postlethwait’s puzzling photography propelled me back into my art critic mode. It was back to the task at hand, being museums sleuths. Trashing our tea cups and cookie wrappings, we returned to the fourth floor to review Cabin Fever. Note: I always carry a pad and pen to jot what interests. Get a friend to take your photos. Dave is great about adhering to my photo commands, which frees me to scrutinize. And make sure you photograph information tags. This can be important backup. Catalogues are pricey and not always available. I’ve returned home with an art book from a museum shop only to discover the artist’s work on display didn’t appear in my catalogue purchase. Let your critique begin; be objective without being objectionable.

The Anchorage Museum’s fourth floor gallery is difficult art space as there is an entire wall of windows. The up-close view of the museum roof and mechanicals are an eyesore while the distant view of the Chugach Mountains competes with the gallery space.  Cabin Fever seemed like something thrown up in the ‘off tourist season.’ It didn’t say ‘cooped up’ either. After all, you can have winter blues in an Anchorage subdivision. Shack-wacky wasn’t expressed even in the vintage Gold Rush photos of miners’ cabins. Packing palettes that housed video monitors reminded me more of shopping at Costco. I gravitated to Erik Holmstedt’s Töre 031203-2, a photograph of an old travel trailer parked behind chain link on what appeared to be flat space in front of frozen water with only a few protruding shrubs for company. The piece spoke of being alone and shut up in small space surrounded by frigid vastness of uncertainty and loneliness.

We descended one flight to the Ghani and Kelly six videos, It Could Go Either Way.  It’s nice to see the museum showing looping shorts. However, more explanation (handouts or more wall verbiage) was needed. We gravitated to Smile You’re in Sharjah, 2009, what appeared to be a day in the life of the third largest city in the United Arab Emirates. Old and new were easily spotted at construction sites, shopping malls and fishmongers. A cell from the projection showed café umbrellas sporting the Dunkin Donut logo while tourists in Western dress and city dwellers in Islamic attire peacefully flow past each other– hope for other Muslim countries.

Smile You're in Sharjah (2009). (By Marian Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly)
Smile You’re in Sharjah (2009). (By Marian Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly)

Across the hall Ashley Lohr’s solo show, Perceptions, was colorfully disappointing. Some of her hard edged abstracts were poorly stretched; canvas threads should have been snipped. Four canvases placed vertically resembling a new twist on Donald Judd’s iron boxes, 1965, could have been a highlight if only they had been hung neatly; thus rhythms were lost. Some of Lohr’s harsh colors didn’t flow; they weren’t complementary or tonal either and lacked clarity as to why she chose them. Gallery spotlights cast distracting shadows too. Her most accomplished piece was American Beauty, 2009; patches of reddish tones and a spot of blue center stage ambiguously flickered between complete abstraction and representational ceiling tiles with a skylight.

We descended once more to Voices of the Wilderness. All of the pieces expressed enthusiasm for Alaska’s outdoors even if they didn’t always accomplish the task. Industrial colors replacing realistic landscape coloration weren’t explained, nor was a box collaged with photographs. Linda Beach’s Threading Through the Gravel Bars, East Fork of the Toklat, 2005, was a large quilted landscape. Small strips of blue and beige prints describe gravel and streams in the foreground. Like a Rothko abstract, her Alaskan panorama appears as three bands. Designing and then sewing all the horizontal units so the viewer separates the rusty/green lower hillsides from the mud flats and the silvery blue sharper mountains was spot on. The late Hugh Mc Peck’s bronze sculpture of a moving bear, 2005, made after visiting the Gates of the Arctic, didn’t do justice to this multi-talented artist. He wrote me a recommendation which helped me attend the University of Chicago’s Midway Studios at the start of the millennium. While in Chicago, I taught an art class at the Graham School which I modelled after McPeck’s UAA figure drawing classes.

After an afternoon of sleuthing, we opted for dinner at the Anchorage Museum’s Muse, a bistro less noisy than ones on the waterfront a few blocks away. Dave and I split a bottle of Riesling; the friendly staff sealed the remainder so we could take it home. We sipped clam chowder and tasted two main courses: porcini encrusted halibut with yam mashed potatoes, and comforting chicken pie with a very flaky top crust. Our bread pudding with berries was too much dessert; they boxed the remains which we enjoyed with a movie later.

So the next time cabin fever comes on, head to the Anchorage Museum for some sleuthing; colors, textures and dining at the red/white Muse is bound to invigorate. Evaluating art at your local museum allows for better understanding of your community. Stretch those artistic muscles, especially during the winter months. Read art books, watch videos, take a class and travel to outside art venues. Your local art scene can be a good place to start.

Art/artist inquiries can be made at the Anchorage Museum gift shop, Might at the Museum is available here.