When Walls Talk

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The Art Institute of Chicago, renowned as one of the great art museums in America, and I almost didn’t go. A real shame too, because now that I’ve spent a fair four or five hours there, I look back at myself like I was a true nut-case.

Since moving to Chicago to learn about the kind of art I’d like to create for the rest of my life, my mind persuaded me that I wouldn’t enjoy a sort of, tie and dress shoes, high-brow, Art Institute. My expectations set by the places I’d been and past experiences. This, however, was not the case at The Art Institute of Chicago.

My first visit was catalyzed by my father making his first visit to me since I began schooling in Chicago. He had long before insisted that we take a trip to the museum, but I rejected the idea. However, this time, we were here and he didn’t take no for an answer. We made a lengthy walk to the front gates of The Institute. The imagery was grand, but very grounded in similar architecture as the rest of Chicago, it reminded me of the public library. I prepared for my expectations to be hardly met, only for the next hour to disappear and for me to be left intrigued.

The speed of the trip left me wanting more. I barely got to examine or fully take in what I had seen. For the next week something began burning inside me. A deep need to know and explore more of what those halls of creation held, so I planned to go back. I found a clear space in my schedule, a Monday, when the exhibits, might not be the sea of people they were on the weekend. I arrived and began to explore.

Within were so many works to see it almost became nauseating at first, where to start? Like an explorer of any new place, I first let my feet take me where they may, until the world should come into focus. I first headed downwards to the lower level, as it was much smaller than the first and second floors. The first exhibit I found myself in was already a treasure trove. Miniature Rooms, of a multitude of styles and eras, all created by a native of Chicago, Mrs. James Ward Thorne. The miniature rooms were all so delicate and detailed. Each had enough to tell the story of the people who lived within. Drawings and dolls, all lying where they may. Each room even include a scene to view through the tiny windows, these were not just sculptures or models, they were real homes, inhabited by the spirit of those who were too large to live inside. Yet the story did not end there. As I left my ears perked to the sound of a story being told about how the rooms were so hard to move, she wished them to be left in the museum for her city to enjoy.

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The other intriguing exhibit I visited was in the southeast corner near the sculpture court. I was searching for Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884), but it had been moved downstairs. After locating it, I stumbled upon a work of which I never expected to see. Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait (1887). It was a plot twist in the narrative led by my visitor guide. The painting had not been advertised anywhere I had seen and yet that tiny painting, not much larger than a piece of paper, captured me for what must have been at least 15 minutes. It was so unexpected and so beautiful in its simplicity. It was also a contrast as the previously mentioned A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884), was as large as the wall itself. It was that which made me notice that for all the organization of the exhibits themselves The museum itself had very little intended path and structure of its own.

I realized The Art Institute was almost a mirror for Chicago itself. One major element coming from their pure emotion and story pouring forth without intended structure or boundaries. In the Introduction of Smokestacks and Skyscrapers, a Chicago writing anthology edited by David Starkey, Richard Wright is quoted saying, “There is an open and raw beauty about that city, that either seems to kill or endow one with the spirit of life.” The halls and dead ends in The Institute tell the story of Chicago. Everything we see imbued with meaning and story, but without a path set before us we carve our own paths through the museum, and her city likewise. We find things we never expected.

Due to this free and raw nature, it became hard to think of a thesis and a structure for why exactly I love the art so much. This time taking a note from Aleksandar Herman. He published a short list, Reasons I Don’t Want to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List. At first I was truly amused by it, but didn’t find much beneath the surface. Now, however, the list becomes much clearer. There is something about that rawness of Chicago that can be described through anything else but the item to item list of things we find inescapably enjoyable. I felt the same way when leaving The Art Institute. The way it always feels like daylight inside. The overpriced, but lovely hot chocolate. How Chicago architects really seem to like squares and four sided things. The fact that this list is and will always probably be incomplete.

After having time to think and process all that I’ve seen, a few things become clear. Things aren’t going to be perfect and make perfect sense to everyone in the world, but that’s okay. To me that’s what made this trip special, that my experience made it unique. I’d like to capture that feeling in writing as I move forward. That people who experience my art will have the feeling that the art is for them.

More importantly I now know this: Don’t be stupid, look at everything. If you’re on the fence about checking out a place that could have something interesting, go. Whether or not you find that thing you were looking for, you will at least know that you looked. Until curiosity actually kills that cat, you’re only missing out on what could have been. I could have still never gone to The Art Institute and all I think is, “So what?” Now I can only think about when I can go next. (Jacob Bernaden/ City of Stories Student)

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