Art in the Pandemic
By Stephanie Painter
In a Zoom call, you occupy a box, and you stare out at tenants inhabiting the other poorly lit boxes. Zoom enables communication, but it lacks authenticity. There is some grief in the way of cloistered communications in our off-screen lives as well. My fix for this state of mind is to explore art museums at home and abroad. Like a grieving Dorothy, I take my limp spirit and launch a quest for fantastical color and expressiveness. The pleasures of visiting an art museum are now magnified, and one destination on the road to Oz is Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
In this museum, collections celebrate the American spirit, and artists created for just such a time as ours, slipping messages inside metaphorical bottles. With a free admission ticket in hand, I speed-read a map of exhibitions pointing the way to galleries, exhibitions, and outdoor art. And it is all open for exploration. Already the pandemic woes subside a bit. Masks are required, but if you lean into Paul Cadmus’ self-portrait, he won’t bark at you for breaking the six-feet social distancing rule.
It’s quiet but not too hushed here in the Contemporary Art Gallery. In fact, in some areas there are snippets of conversation and one enthusiastic “So cool”! I even hear a low whistle triggered by Leonardo Drew’s “Number 184T” mixed media. We have all been constrained for the past few years. Exploring museum spaces, free yourself to break the grown-ups’ rules. Be a nosy kid and stare at exposed painted faces, savoring quirks of feature and expression. Just as you did when you were younger, before the pandemic malaise.
With your sight restored, hold out for sweeping perspective. No matter your mother’s admonition, it is okay to take the biggest slice of cake. Robert Henri’s depiction of a young dancer, “Jessica Penn in Black with White Plumes,” commands a sweeping 77 inches by 38 inches canvas. The size flings to obscurity those hated Zoom boxes. At the dawn of the 20th-century, Jessica made her Broadway debut, and her bold gaze seems to promise that though The Great White Way will close in 2020, theatre will never die. She was right, and Jessica’s confidence speaks to me in a time when I am newly anxious.
Here at Crystal Bridges, you can race outdoors to the North Forest and make noise alongside Rashid Johnson’s living greenhouse, The Bruising: For Jules, The Bird, Jack and Leni. The second level offers a scaffold stage for artists to perform from within the heart of the sculpture, but kids of all ages can gather round the sculpture and offer spontaneous performances using song, spoken word, or dance.
You have breached many rules, but do follow your parents’ advice and befriend the kid who appears to be having a tough time. Return to the Modern Art Gallery, where Paul Cadmus’ self-portrait reveals a troubled spirit, perhaps reflecting the weariness of life in the Great Depression. The work offers a lens into the subject’s emotional life, and the artist drew attention to the face, creating a circular composition through a bent arm, curving coat lapel, and raised pencil. Recall that everyone is feeling a bit pooped and angsty these days, and compassion for others and self is a gift.
Continuing the jaunt, suspend your awareness of time and explore until the docent is forced to kick you out of the museum. Steal the setting for a goodnight story on your way out. Maxfield Parrish’s “The Lantern Bearers” communicates a magical tale with fantastical characters dressed as clowns who hang gold-hued lanterns that glow against a silhouetted tree and blue night sky. Sweet dreams to you!
In Memphis, Crosstown Arts, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Brooks Museum of Art, and local galleries have opportunities for revelry. My adventure is an antidote to the emotional numbness that has set in during the pandemic, an escape from an endless Monopoly game of boxes that isolate and bankrupt emotionally. “Above all things get abroad, see the sunlight and everything that is to be seen,” artist John Singer Sargent encouraged. So, be a nosy kid and stare fiercely, just as you did when you were younger, before the pandemic malaise.
Stephanie Painter is a freelance writer and author of a children’s picture book. She is married to artist Eric Painter and lives in Memphis.
A version of this essay was first published by Chapter 16: https://chapter16.org/