30 Americans

I had meant to spend yesterday afternoon working in sulky solitude on all the projects I have to do but have no interest in doing. Obviously I failed at that because I have virtually no self-regulation. Instead, I ran into my friend Ned at the coffee shop (where the work was supposed to be done), and he said, "Do you want to go to this exhibit at the Contemporary Art Center called 30 Americans right now?"

Normally, I'm very good at saying no to heartfelt invitations. There are at least four text messages sitting (unreplied-to) in my phone with lovely invitations to go on barefoot walks in marshes or to learn how to make pizza crusts out of of spores (I only have hippies for friends). Usually when someone invites me to a show or a gallery or a party or really anything that sounds even remotely fun, I have an arsenal of replies that run the gamut of "I can't; I have to fix a broken typewriter" to "[radio silence]." Then people tell me I am flaky, and I'm like, "WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT!?"

But yesterday my work was particularly unappealing, and I was having a particularly nice time talking to Ned. (Ned was sitting at the coffee show studying Euripides for pleasure, giggling at the way the translation seemed like a reality show to him. Anyone who can find that kind of whimsy and delight in ancient texts translated from a lost language is the kind of person I would want to have on a desert island with me. That's the kind of person who can turn the very mundane into a firework.)

Also, I'd read about this exhibit. It had been popping up everywhere. Constance, the print studio that is helping us with risograph prints from the first print edition of Neutrons / Protons, had posted extensively about it on their blog. Then, two days later, while I was presenting at a professional development session about why it's important to let children make collages (trust me: it is), Freddi Evans, one of my great life heroes, handed me a pamphlet about the exhibit. Then she looked me in the eyes and said, "You should really come to this." 

So maybe I thought there was some synchronicity in the universe when Ned said his friend Nora was going to see "30 Americans," and would I want to come? Whatever the reason, I found myself at the Contemporary Art Center at 4 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, looking at one of the most powerful, political, beautiful, and straight-up badass exhibits I've seen in my entire life, at any museum, ever.

The vinyl-lettered description of the exhibit on the wall of every room in the museum said:

30 Americans showcases works by many of the most important African American artists of the last three decades. This provocative exhibition focuses on issues of racial, sexual, and historical identity in contemporary culture while exploring the powerful influence of artistic legacy and community across generations.

This is all absolutely an understatement. The pieces were difficult and triumphant; bleak and hopeful. There was nothing to look at that didn't provoke a lot of thought. You wanted to spend an hour in front of every single one. 

But then I slowly became hyperaware of how often my brain was coming up with college-lecture-hall thoughts that contained words like "juxtaposition," "conceptualize," "distort," "symbolize," or "abstraction." In other words, I couldn't stop myself from having the most pretentious notions on earth while looking at the pieces. They were works about difficult subjects; full of emotion, and often painful. Sometimes my brain deals with what it doesn't like by pretending like it is in a college classroom. Everything is so much safer when it can be analyzed and interpreted in the margins.

Then, like a miracle, I walked up to a pair of works that pointed out to me exactly what I was doing. I can't remember what the series was called, or who made it, but here's what I remember. The first piece was a photograph of the iconic "I Am A Man" protest poster from the 1968 Sanitation Worker's Strike in Memphis. The second was the same print, but with all the hairline cracks, air bubbles, and moments of fading paint circled and and noted in black ink.

There are plenty of ways to interpret that piece of art. I actually think the point had more to do with how unique and disparate everything is in the world; all the moments of human error, and everything that we take for granted as being homogenous (including, or perhaps especially, men themselves), when in fact everything is completely and utterly unique. You know, like that scene about daisies and military cemeteries in Harold and Maude

But in the moment, the piece gave me something else. It reminded me to stop drawing ink circles around all the works of art for a little while, and just experience them.

When I was in high school, I went to the Portland Art Museum after school every day (except Mondays, when the museum, abhorrently, was closed). I felt safest there. I liked to just be with the paintings. I liked thinking about the artists as they had made the art; I liked wondering (but not knowing) what made them decide to spend such an enormous chunk of their time creating this piece, that hung on this wall. What brushes were they using and where did they get them? What was happening in their love life at the time? What distracted them while they were painting? What compelled them? What made them feel proud? What made them feel lost? I liked not knowing. The museum was the only place where not knowing was really, absolutely fine. 

When I took a step back and walked around the CAC again, deciding to feel the pieces rather than think about them, I experienced them in a new way. And yeah, it was challenging. Some of them were very deeply sad, or angry, or hurt. There were some that made me cry. I don't need to explain to you why. That isn't the point.

There are plenty of "right" ways to look at art. The pieces in "30 Americans" beg to be seen from many different angles. But more than anything, they are a celebration of the deepest, most complete humanness. They are works which take the great, enormous pain that grows inside being oppressed and objectified, and smash it open: "I am human, and with that, I will create."

When the museum closed, Nora said, "I am going to have to go back and see it again." I wanted to reach out and kiss her on the face for saying that; it was exactly how I felt, too.

But I know myself too well; I know how in adulthood I have sometimes allowed museums to be like college courses to me, and not like homes to return to in the afternoon. I have let plays and cultural exhibits line a trophy shelf in my brain: "I've been there, I've done that, I've seen that thing, I am aware and I haven't missed out." But in truth, I had it right when I was sixteen, wandering the halls of the Portland Art Museum; the same halls, day after day. The paintings were reminders of the creative energy that binds us in our humanity. Or, no. Look! I'm doing it again! The paintings were just friends. And that was all.