Last week while in San Jose for work at the BlogHer conference, I took an hour or two off to visit the San Jose Museum of Art. I really love going to art museums, though I often forget, between rare visits, how much I enjoy going. I almost decided not to go this time, in fact, since I had a lot of work to do. But it was a half a block from my hotel, and I ultimately couldn’t resist.

I rediscovered on this visit that I respond very favorably to abstract (or at least not realist) paintings done in vibrant colors. Several of the pieces I snapped photos of or took brief notes about were almost technicolor. It’s an interesting preference, since in home decor, I tend to prefer a more muted palette. Take for example the work of Kara Maria, of which the museum housed one titled Deployment in Wonderland. I don’t embed it here because boobies, but it is basically a bright pink and green painting of a woman splayed out as if in the boudoir, with miniature semi-realistic camouflaged soldiers lurking about her person as if on watch. The painting is double provocative because it depicts something that some might view as pornographic and also confronts the (needlessly) controversial issue of guardianship of women’s bodies. I like the painting because it’s clever and bold and a little weird.

I also was pleased by a piece by Susan Rothenberg titled Tuning Fork. I don’t have a proper vocabulary for talking about art, but what I liked about this one was its seeming careless layering of color and the curious, kind of evil-looking doubling. The painting depicts a humanoid tuning fork type shape with a reddish shadow cast not only by the prongs of the fork but by the empty gap between them. It’s kind of eery and unsettling. It’s a devilish little tuning fork, and of course the devil is often depicted carrying a pitchfork of his own, so there’s a clever pun mixed up in this piece. I liked it a lot.

I had heard of Cy Twombly before but had never really looked at his art, and it appealed to me. It’s tempting for a philistine like me to group Twombly with someone like Pollock, who, when I was younger, I could never quite understand the appeal of. I used to (and to some degree probably still do) equate the value of art with the effort involved in creating it, and a canvas with a bunch of paint seemingly randomly dripped on it didn’t really qualify as great art in my book. I still won’t pretend that I understand Pollock’s work, or of course Twombly’s, but I do like Twombly’s in particular now that I’ve seen one of them up close. The association I made between Twombly and Pollock was based on the piece I saw in the museum (I forget its title), but on looking at other images of his paintings, I see less of a kinship. I find a lot of them appealing, even if I don’t really know what to make of them. Art need not (maybe should not) be about trying to make things of anything.

The museum hosted several pieces by Jasper Johns, and I didn’t like them very much at all. What struck me about them was his use of newspaper, which reminded me of an artist I like very much indeed — Gordon Cheung. Cheung uses newspaper and bright colors to render really interesting, beautiful paintings that lie somewhere between realism and the psychedelic (tending more toward the latter). So while I didn’t love the Johns work, I was glad to have seen it if only for the reminder of how much I like Cheung’s.

Going to a museum is kind of a weird experience if you don’t actually know much about art. Standing there looking at a piece, I wonder if I’m giving it its due. I wonder things like whether lingering in front of a piece makes me seem like some kind of an art poser who’s trying to project an aura of performing a grand deed of interpretation. Sometimes I don’t know how I’m supposed to interpret a piece, or whether I’m supposed to (generally I’m disinclined to try to force a meaning on them). I have anxiety about reading placards beside the work. As often as not, they’re silly and seem to tidily state an artist’s position that seems likely to have been made after the work was done. Often enough, they state the obvious, or they contain abstractions that I could do without. Still, I read the placards in hopes that they’ll tell me something interesting about the artist or the work. But as I stand there reading the placards, I wonder if others in the gallery think me a moron for needing to read them. Of course, if I don’t read the placards, then any observers might think I fancy myself a great art critic, when that’s not the vibe I wish to project either. Being in the gallery feels like being an object in the gallery, and I wish I could always go alone and that the docents and guards would trust me not to take photographs, as I imagine them to be the most critical judges of my performance in the gallery. The fact of being there bodily is extremely uncomfortable for me.

But of course seeing the art up close and at scale is important. Photographs just don’t do big, layered art any justice. I think I also have a better cross-referential experience when viewing art in a gallery. I look at a piece and respond to it in some way. The pieces that click the most with me tend to do so on the basis of their cleverness or weirdness, and on whether I’ve ever seen anything quite like them before. They may provoke interpretations of some sort, or they may not, but they send me down different paths of thought as I consider them within the context of what little I know about art and begin to think of their relevance to the ways I think about the world. Then I move on to another piece that sends me down similar paths, quite possibly down some that intersect with other paths that my viewing of other pieces have led me down. Art that winds up being meaningful to me does so by surprising and delighting (or horrifying) me. The very best of it also provokes some thought about my experience in the world, but without being unselfconsciously preachy about it.

The San Jose museum is a small museum, but I really enjoyed my visit. Several pieces (some not mentioned here) surprised and delighted me, and I was treated to that experience of making connections between the various pieces of art and the world I live and breathe in. Sometimes when I think about the things I read, I’m inclined to think of them as nourishing. It feels a little pretentious, but it’s the word that seems right, so I suppose I’ll take a side of pretension with my course of descriptiveness. What I mean by it is of course that the reading does more than merely entertain me. It makes me feel like I belong in the world, and more importantly that perhaps someone else belongs in the world in a way roughly congruent with the way I do, so that I’m not alone in the way that I experience the world. The same can happen with visual art (perhaps more readily, in fact). I found my visit nourishing.

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