Monday, May 22, 2006

El Museo Dificil (part one)

For years I had avoided visiting the Difficult Museum, although everyone always insisted it was a must. The guidebooks never failed to mention it. It was always a top attraction for tourists, and every art and design school considered it a foundation of a well-rounded education. It was, everyone always told me, “immersive.”

Invasive was more like it. My freshman college roommate had gone to the museum over spring break, and soon after we resumed classes I noticed that his behavior had changed radically. Chad had been a shy, retiring guy when I first knew him. He rendered quick and elegant nudes in charcoal. He preferred soft watercolors to bolder paints. Everything about his art was gentle and subtle, if a little childishly surreal.

After a weekend trip to the Difficult Museum, however, he traded to acrylics, with an emphasis on reds, yellows, and black. The lithe, nubile coeds he used to flatter with his sketches were soon put off by the craggy deterioration that began to creep into his drawings. Chad’s wide, blue eyes narrowed into troubled slits. I didn’t know the guy anymore, and I made sure not to sign up for another year as his roommate.

The fact that his art career took off in just another year and that he was mounting major exhibitions by late junior year meant nothing, as far as I was concerned. The museum had done something to him, and I didn’t want that done to me.

It was the same with a couple of girlfriends of mine as well. Neither of them hit the same professional stride that Chad did, but they both altered their behavior and their art soon after visiting the place. Raquel was a sculptor who liked to work dark woods into organic, vaguely erotic shapes. She finished and polished them all to a high gloss, and those sculptures were one of the first things that attracted me to her. There was a purity in her expression, and only a mild, if potent, sexuality. The sculptures reminded me of Raquel herself: slender but rounded, oddly beautiful, slightly divine.

Then she went to the Difficult Museum to gain extra credit for one of her Shape and Form seminars. The next time we went out, she was sullen and avoided my eyes. She seemed obsessed with the notion of objectification. She told me more than once that I stared at her too much. I told her that I simply found her attractive. She said, exactly, and that it was something of a problem.

Soon after, she stopped seeing me. She stayed in touch, but she literally refused to allow me any visual contact with her. When I saw her across campus, she hurried away and often ducked into the women’s restroom until she was sure I’d left. The only time I was allowed to see her was at our student exhibitions, to which she began submitting large numbers of new, strange work.

She still preferred to work in wood, but only as a base. All manner of implements--nails, pipes, screws, glass shards, jagged pieces of rock--were worked into the sculptures. She gouged the wood, splintered it, broke pieces awkwardly, and removed any traces of smoothness or shine. Eventually she started dating someone else, and they left school together prior to graduation. At the last exhibit of hers that I saw, she had started hammering other bits of wood into her pieces, handcarved nails of hardwood that she drove into soft pine. She’d also taken up woodburning, with alarming, frankly vulgar results.

For these and other reasons, I had absolutely no desire ever to go to that damn museum. As far as I could see, all it did was make happy people miserable. The only people who appeared unaffected were miserable to begin with. So lots of my fellow art students seemed to pass through its doors with little aftereffect, though they all raved about it sullenly.

I did, however, have cause to wonder over the course of the next decade whether I had made the right choice in avoiding the Difficult Museum. I had completed my courses, developed my own sense of artistic expression, and founds some mild success with my wry, brightly colored canvases of invented cartoon characters. They made for good T-shirts, and I had a certain cache with disaffected hipsters burdened by expendable cash. But I was nowhere near the level of professional success Chad had achieved. His work had become collectible by people whose names appeared in the mastheads of international art journals. Raquel had a few pieces acquired by museums. And other colleagues were headlining shows that were getting breathless reviews by bigwig tastemakers.

Meanwhile, I had a few characters I’d managed to license to a skateboard manufacturer. My works tended to get shown as one facet of multiartist shows. I was doing okay, but my writeups were in magazines that tended to be printed on newsprint in black-and-white. Most of my fans wore flat-bottomed sneakers and baggy pants. They didn’t care that there was no place for my work in the museums, because they only went there with class field trips. I was impressing the same kinds of people who had attended parties with me in high school. I was getting older, but most of my audience wasn’t.

That’s when Juanda called. We’d been at school together, and she and I often displayed our work at some of the same shows. She’d been asked to track me down to see if I wanted to contribute some pieces to a special exhibit. It was to be a “flash retrospective,” a quick look back at the ten years since my particular class left my particular college. Without my knowing it, our class had achieved some status as a talent collective. And because I was still working and selling my work, I got lumped in with the rest of them, although the other names on the list were, as far as the art community was concerned, actual Names. My former roommate Chad was chief among them, of course.

Juanda said she’d been asked to select some works of her own for inclusion, and that the organizer of the exhibition wanted to find a few people who weren’t with the galleries he’d already contacted. Which was a nice way of indicating that we hadn’t really made it the way our other classmates had. But they probably wanted the exhibit to have some variety and flavor. That’s where my work would come in, on the end of the spectrum about which some viewers would declare, “I guess they’ll let just anybody be an artist these days.”

But it was exposure, and you could never tell what might come of such things. I’d select some pieces for the shallow end of the pool and hope for some good reviews. Maybe the luster of my more successful colleagues would add a bit of shine to my own stature. I asked Juanda who I should contact.

“Anton Fighorn,” she said, “the curator at the Difficult Museum.”