Artist Date 57: California, Coming Home

My friend Sherrod was the first artist I knew personally who made money at her craft.  Which meant she covered her expenses and then some.

I remember seeing her painting on Liberty Street, where I lived in San Francisco.  Victorian houses in oil.  She was prolific.  One night, as the sun began to go down, I invited her in for dinner.  It was the first time she met my then-boyfriend/now ex-husband.  Being somewhat filter-less, she named him “Pretty Boy” on the spot.

That year Pretty Boy bought me a copy of one of Sherrod’s pieces for my birthday.

It was a view of Dolores Park, from above it, and downtown San Francisco in the distance.  Done in watercolors.  Light.  Almost cartoonish.  Nothing like her other work which was darker and moody.

Pretty Boy put it in a white-wood frame he found in the alley and hung it over our bed.  It followed us from San Francisco to Oakland, Chicago and Seattle – where I left it – a little piece of our first shared home.

I get emails from Sherrod now and again, telling me about her shows in the Bay Area.  But I hadn’t really thought about her work much until now, standing at the Art Institute of Chicago.  I am at the “Dreams & Echoes: Drawings and Sculpture in the David and Celia Hilliard Collection” exhibit – Artist Date 57.

My friend Jack suggested it.

I like the sketches in the process of becoming – Degas’ “Grand Arabesque,” Matisse’s “Still Life with Apples.”  The ripe, sexy suggestiveness of Rodin’s “Leda and the Swan,” Povis de Chavannes’ “Sleeping Woman.”  The eerie, ethereal quartet in Toorop’s “A Mysterious Hand Leads to Another Path.”  But I don’t quite see how it all hangs together.

2014-01-16 15.35.01
Francis Towne’s “Naples”

Francis Towne’s “Naples: A Group of Buildings Seen from an Adjacent Hillside.”  An accurate, albeit not terribly inspired, title.  It is from 1781, done in pen and black ink, with a brush, and black and gray wash over traces of graphite.  Italy.  But all I see is Dolores Park.

I am wistful and happy at the same time – remembering this place I used to call home, where the sun wasn’t a stranger in January and, rumor had it, Tracy Chapman lived on my street.  This place where I met and married Pretty Boy.

It is the second time I’ve rubbed up against California today.

“Nevada Falls, Yosemite Valley, California,” painted in 1920 by Marguerite Thompson Zorach.  The dreamy, translucent watercolors whisper to me of Sherrod’s Dolores Park.

2014-01-16 15.26.12
Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s “Nevada Falls”

I know the view.  I’ve seen it many time,s driving down from Badger Pass to the Yosemite Valley floor, coming through the tunnel carved into granite.  Surprising and spectacular.  I’ve hiked a part of it, along with Vernal Falls and the John Muir Trail, forming a loop.  I was with Pretty Boy and our friend Tim –my first foray into camping.

We stayed in Curry Village in a canvas tent cabin with a wood platform and a single light bulb.  Tim threw baby carrots to the squirrels, although the signs all around instructed him not to.  Hilarious – until one scurried into our tent.

We bought water and painted wood disks strung on elastic at the adjacent store.  “Camp beads,” I exclaimed, handing a strand to Pretty Boy.  Not unlike the ones he had given me off his own neck on our first date.

I got boot bang on the trail descending and had to rip off my toenail.  And once back at Curry Village, I jumped into the Merced River, and then sat on a rock, drying and shivering in the sun.

After that trip I graduated to a real tent, the lightweight kind I could use to backpack in for a few days.

2014-01-16 15.18.59
Marc Chagall’s “Das Haus”

“Das Haus.”  The Marc Chagall woodcut jumps from the wall.  All four woodcuts, displayed in a row, do.  But it is Chagall who paints my heart.  Lead glasses my heart.  Woodcuts my heart.

A house erupting from a man’s shoulders.  According to the placard, it was produced following Chagall’s exile from Belarus.  “…the work can be seen as an image of the artist metaphorically carrying his home with him.”  Like the movie, Up.  Like the painting in my living room, “You Can Take It With You,” that I bought from my friend Scotty before leaving Chicago in 2011.

I return to the placard at the exhibit’s entryway.  It ends, “Even with its diversity of artists and time periods, the Hilliard collection possesses a remarkable consistency in sensibility: these works are unified by their ability to transport the viewer to other eras, other worlds.”

Chagall’s house.  My stories.  Towne’s Naples.  My California.

Artist Date 29: Undressed

undressed
Degas’ “Woman at her Toilette”

I don’t recall ever having erotic musings at a museum.  Until today.

But I also don’t recall seeing a posting at the entry of an exhibit, a warning that explicit content lay ahead, possibly unsuitable for children.

But there it was.  And there I was in front of Felicien Rops’ “For You, General.”  A mild flush on my face –  Artist’s Date 29.

I returned to the Art Institute of Chicago for “Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy,” an adjunct exhibit to the newly opened “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,” which I saw last week – Artist Date 28.

I liked the name.  It reminded me of my strong belief in really good underwear – or none at all, which my friend Clover reminded me of when she was visiting last week.  She came out of the bathroom smiling.

“Right…really good underwear,” she said, referring to the lacy bits drying over the shower rod and towel bars.  We giggled knowingly.

There is very little underwear in “Undressed” – but a lot of vulnerable nakedness.

Sketches and paintings in all array of medium.  Women bathing.  Dressing.  Masturbating.  Breast feeding.

Mothers.  Prostitutes.  Children.  Defined spines.  Soft lines and folds of skin.

They remind me of something Geneen Roth wrote in her book When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair or 50 Ways to Feel Gorgeous and Happy (When You Feel Anything But).  Suggestion 25: Stare at Normal Women’s Bodies (Normal Does Not Include Models, Actresses, and Elite Athletes).

I’ve done this at women’s spas.  Sitting in the dry sauna, noticing dimpled thighs and buttocks.  Six-pack abs and round bellies – some large and pendulous, obscuring any hint of pubic hair.  Breast implants perched nearly at shoulder height.  Mastectomies.  Single and double, with and without reconstruction.

Pierced nipples.  Pierced navels.   C-section scars.  My own scars.  Two faded purple lines running vertically from my areolas to the folds under my breasts.

Sometimes I forget what real bodies look like.  How they move in the world.  I am reminded.

Degas’ “The Tub.”  A bronze sculpture of a woman submerged in water, her leg outstretched, washing her foot.

Klimt’s “Seated Woman from The Front with Hat, Face Hooded.”  Wispy lines of pastel pencil.  Her legs are spread and her hands are between them.  A large hat lazily tilted over her face.

debauchery-second-floor-1896_jpg!Blog

Lautrec’s ”Woman in Bed – Waking.”  She is turned toward me, one sleepy eye just opening.  Sexy.  Soft.  So different from his prostitute in “Debauchery” –a hazy, colored drawing of a woman being groped from behind.  His hands over her breasts.  Her arm extended, a martini-shaped glass dangling from her hand.

There are men too.

Delacroix’s “Standing Academic Male Nude.”  Chiseled.  Holding a stick, he appears to be rapping it onto his flat hand –a threatening gesture.  As if preparing to punish some innocent, or not so innocent.

As if HE is the general Rops’ alludes to in “For You, General” – an old woman holding a younger one over her knee, her buttocks exposed, an offering.  The girl’s bunched up skirt covers her face.  The old woman is smiling.

boys bathing

Munch’s “Boys Bathing 1896.”  Like tadpoles.  “Boys Bathing 1899.”  Like many letter X’s, like many little frogs.  “Men Bathing.”  Like figures from a Hatch Show Print poster –iconic wood-block images made in Nashville, announcing the Grand Ole Opry and Johnny Cash.

There are children.  Rafaelli’s “Germaine At Her Toilette.”  A young girl in a white dressing gown, her black tights wrinkled and baggy at the knees.  Even religious icons.  Munch’s “Madonna,” like an album cover or t-shirt from a 70’s rock band.  Bands of colors tracing her image.  And who is the small character in the bottom left corner, seemingly questioning all of this?

Edvard_Munch_-_Madonna_-_Google_Art_Project_(495100)I notice the few pieces by women. Just  a few — always.  Suzanne Valadon sketches.  Mary Cassatt paintings.  Her style is bright.  Animated.

I peer deeply into black and white woodcuts.  I love their simplicity, their precision.  And yet, I am not quite sure what I see.

I come close and step away and come close again.  It reminds me of the drawings on the back page of children’s magazines.  The ones that ask “Do you see the old woman or the young woman?”  Where once you see one, it is impossible to see the other.

It is the same with Vuillard’s “The Birth of Annette.”  Finally, after many minutes, I see the baby’s head.

Perhaps that is the point.  The experience of “Undressed,” of being undressed, is so intimate, so private.  I am an invited voyeur.  It is not mine to fully know.