Last weekend, A (not her real initial) and I took advantage of a bright and sunny autumn day to drive to Northampton, where we wanted to see Tara Donovan’s “Moire” at Smith College followed by an exhibit of Henri Matisse drawings at nearby Mount Holyoke College.
The Tara Donovan installation at Smith was a bit disappointing: instead of being an entire exhibit, the installation featured only two pieces along with a video overview of Donovan’s oeuvre. Since A and I had seen a jaw-dropping exhibit of Tara Donovan’s work at the Institute of Contemporary Art years ago—and since I’d seen Donovan’s eye-popping cloud of Styrofoam cups at the Museum of Fine Arts earlier this year—the installation of over-sized adding machine rolls spread across the Smith Museum gallery floor like a kind of topographical map was interesting, but underwhelming. I was glad we had the Matisse exhibit at Mount Holyoke to justify the distance we’d come.
But before we drove from Northampton to South Hadley, we went downstairs at the Smith College Museum of Art to go to the restroom…and boy, I’m glad we did. When Smith renovated its museum restrooms in 2002, they asked two artists to design the décor of those otherwise practical places, and the result is both delightful and surprising. Who expects a public restroom to be an art installation?
In the ladies’ room, Ellen Driscoll’s “Catching the Drift” features a blue and white palette that reminded me of the blue and white porcelain I’d seen on view at the MFA in 2013. Because of that exhibit, I wasn’t surprised to see a blue and white tiled floor or blue and white tiled wall in the Smith Museum’s ladies’ room…but when I walked into a stall to do what I’d come into the ladies’ room to do, I did a double-take to see cobalt blue swirls and patterns in the toilet bowls.
These swirls were fanciful and fun, but they were also reminiscent of the blue streaks of toilet bowl cleaner you use when scrubbing a bathroom. “Catching the Drift” features the aquatic creatures that live downstream from our sinks and (yes) toilets, and it made me wonder what happens, exactly, to all that bright-blue toilet bowl cleaner after we’ve scrubbed and flushed it away.
While A and I were washing our hands and trying not to look too obvious as we snapped photos, a trio of women came into the ladies’ room and started taking pictures of their own. I overheard these women debating whether to go into the men’s room to see its different décor, and after the youngest of them suggested it would be perfectly fine for women at an all-women’s college to venture into an underused men’s room, they disappeared. By the time A and I emerged from the ladies’ room, the trio of women was exiting the men’s room. “Coast is clear,” they announced, so we ventured into the one place at Smith College we truly never expected to visit.
In the men’s room, Sandy Skoglund’s “Liquid Origins, Fluid Dreams” employed a more neutral palette, with black and white drawings of mythic tales of creation and transformation decorating wall tiles, toilets, and urinals. Whereas Driscoll’s aquatic creatures are blue and fluid, Skoglund’s black-etched mythical beings are restrained and geometric, filling a repeating grid that is both orderly and calming. If the Smith Museum’s ladies’ room is a realm of dewy dreams, the Smith Museum men’s room is the realm of artfully-arranged science, with each meticulously drawn diagram filling its proper spot.
Although Tara Donovan’s “Moire” was a bit disappointing, I’m glad A and I drove all the way to Northampton to see it. Had we stayed home, we would have never realized how creative an artist-designed restroom can be.
This is my Day Two contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.