Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Today I sorted through a dozen photos I’d taken when J and I saw an exhibit of model planes, trains, and automobiles at the Museum of Fine Arts last December. That exhibit is long gone, so it was fun to revisit photos I’d left on my camera and nearly forgotten about.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I enjoy reliving art exhibits when I go through my pictures, regardless of how much time has passed in the meantime. Sometimes when I’m looking for inspiration, I’ll click through my Flickr albums of past exhibits as a way to nudge my Muse. Even if I don’t “use” any of these archived photos in a blog post, I do “use” them as visual prompts: something to look at to stir my creativity, like smelling salts used to revise an unresponsive patient.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Looking at pictures stimulates my noticing muscle, and for me, noticing anything interesting–whether that be an unusual idea or intriguing angle–quickly converts to language. When I notice something interesting, my Inner Narrator perks up and wants to understand and explain that thing. Even if I”m writing about something completely different from whatever I”m looking at, the act of looking seems helpful, even if only as a distraction: something to pull me outside myself, and something for me to fiddle with, like intellectual worry beads.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I suppose there are people who use music in this way, a backdrop of sound serving to invigorate, inspire, and drown out distractions. For me, though, sight is more evocative than sound. I’m adept at ignoring sounds–a skill I acquired after being married to a musician for more than a decade–so sight is the sense that most directly gets me thinking. When I look at something closely, a string of sentences automatically appears and ultimately accumulates into some sort of narrative.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

This is why I stockpile pictures from museum visits. Those visits are an immediate inspiration, lighting up a visual part of my brain that isn’t accessible any other way. But long after that immediate inspiration fades, my photos remain like preserves stocked on cerebral shelves: flavors from an earlier abundance.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Henry David Thoreau famously said that firewood warms you twice: once when you chop it, and once when you burn it. In a similar vein, I find that art inspires me twice: once when I see it in person, and once when I revisit my pictures, stashed away like souvenirs from inspiration gone by.


…like smiling!

Last night, J and I took the T into town, where we attended the Boston premiere of David Tamés’ Smile Boston Project, a short documentary on the work of Bren Bataclan. I’ve blogged about Bataclan before: first when he brought his whimsical paintings to Keene to cheer us after the dismal floods of October, 2005, and next when J commissioned him to paint charmingly cartoonish portrait of Reggie.

The premise behind Bataclan’s “Smile Boston Project” is simple enough, and he’s translated the basic concept to dozens of locales far from Boston. In an attempt to spread the love, Bataclan leaves original paintings of his brightly colored characters in public spaces–on benches, inside college student centers, and elsewhere–with notes attached telling people they can have the paintings for free if they “promise to smile at random people more.”

Bren Bataclan with friends

In Tamés’ documentary, a camera chronicles one painting as it sits on a bench in a crowded Boston park, passersby pausing to consider it while others go about their business and at least one homeless man sleeps on a nearby bench. In interviews with people who were brave enough to take one of the paintings, Tamés shows how most folks’ initial reaction to the notion of paintings free for the taking was one of disbelief: surely there isn’t someone out there who is handing out art in exchange for a simple promise!

Bren Bataclan with friends

And yet, the promise behind the paintings is true. Tamés documentary explains how Bataclan, who went to college in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, was surprised to discover when he moved to Boston that people here don’t make eye contact, smile, and say hello the way they do in the Midwest. More than 15 years after my own move to New England, I still share Bataclan’s reaction: when J and I walk with or without our dogs on the streets of lush and leafy Newton, we’re continually amazed at how many folks do not return our gaze or respond to our hellos. A graphic artist who, after the dot-com bubble burst, was relieved to discover that Boston art-appreciators would actually buy his paintings, Bataclan has spent the past five years trying to thank the people of Boston and beyond by literally giving people something to smile about.

Characters galore

Several of the “serious art critics” who discuss Bataclan’s work in Tamés’ documentary raise the question of whether his cartoonish characters, painted in a “primitive” style that changes little from painting to painting, are “really” art. And yet the gushingly appreciative folks who actually claimed Bataclan’s paintings–and the satisfied customers who willingly spend money to buy Bataclan’s gallery pieces–universally agree that the paintings make them happy. Do paintings qualify as “Art” only if they are serious and somber? Are brightly colored paintings that try for nothing more than to make viewers smile too simple to be “Art”?

Notebook doodles

In Smile Boston Project, Bataclan lists Keith Haring, who made fine art out of street art, as one of his inspirations, and the connection between Bataclan and Haring is apparent. In several previous posts, I’ve grappled with the question of whether street art is “Art,” and you can infer my own stance in the debate from the fact that I have an entire blog category dedicated to graffiti. The first time I snapped photos of the graffiti-covered walls of Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge, I went specifically to see Bataclan’s work there. Although his images have long since been covered with those by other spray-can-wielding street artists, Bataclan’s paintings feature the same bold colors and clean lines you’ll see in larger-than-life street murals, the eye-grabbing “pop” of this kind of Pop Art deriving more from the bold statement of in-your-face images than from the subtle nuance of more “refined” works.

High tech, low tech

Bren Bataclan’s “Smile Boston Project” is definitely fun…but is it art? Whether or not the stern-faced critics nod in the affirmative is, to me, beside the point. Like performance art, Bataclan’s street-freebies invite viewers to get actively involved in the message by passing on the smiles the paintings inspire. Skeptics say it’s not possible for an artist to survive by giving his work away for free; one critic interviewed in Smile Boston Project suggests that Bataclan is more a marketer than an artist, his free paintings being nothing more than a public relations gimmick. But if we decry gimmickry for its superficiality, shouldn’t we also decry the kind of smug superiority that suggests skepticism is more valuable than smiles? One of the welcome outcomes of art is the way it conquers skepticism to suggest anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible task of melting New England reserve to bring a child-like glee to the streets of Boston.

This is my day-late contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, I’m feeling… Today’s photos are from an assortment of Bren Bataclan encounters: the first from last night’s Boston premiere of David Tamés’ Smile Boston Project, the next two from Bataclan’s appearance at this year’s Beacon Hill Art Walk, and the rest from a January visit to Bataclan’s studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Enjoy!

Crouching Spider

The last time I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Leslee, a mutual friend, and I saw Bourgeois in Boston, an exhibit including one of Louise Bourgeois’ larger-than-life sculpted spiders. The ICA doesn’t allow photography in its galleries, so Leslee, our friend, and I had to content ourselves with simply walking among and around the towering, spindly legs that filled an entire room while Leslee illustrated her post about our drizzly-day visit with images taken in the ICA’s camera-friendly public spaces.

Crouching Spider with Bay Bridge

Given that first, camera-free introduction to Bourgeois’ spindly arachnids, how interesting it was to stumble upon Crouching Spider along San Francisco’s Embarcadero last month, the absence of museum walls allowing me to take as many photos as I’d like. It’s one thing to see a work of art caged like a zoo animal inside a museum; it’s another thing to see it unleashed in the streets. Inside the guarded galleries of Boston’s ICA, Bourgeois’ sculpture cast soft, muted shadows and seemed a bit tame. “I wonder how they got this thing in here,” I remember wondering. In the shadow of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, Crouching Spider casts a wild, snaky shade, its withered, dwindling extremities mirroring the intricate web of the bridge’s suspension wires and railing: the spider’s art echoing the engineer’s architecture. Although devised by one in the same artist, the captive spider-sculpture I’d seen in Boston seemed entirely different from the open-air one I saw along the San Francisco shore.


On Sunday, Leslee and I returned to the ICA, this time drawn by the promise of air-conditioned respite from the weekend’s blistering hot weather. Whereas last year, our trip to the ICA was my first introduction to the work of Louise Bourgeois, this weekend we went to the ICA specifically to see its current exhibit by Anish Kapoor: Past, Present, Future. If museums are to art what zoos are to animals, my previous experience with Kapoor happened in the wild, in Chicago, where I’d taken loads of photos of Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, affectionately known among its fans as “the Bean.”

Having first encountered Kapoor’s reflective surfaces in the wilds of downtown Chicago, I wasn’t sure how well they’d fare–or how well I’d interact with them–in the captivity of museum space. Leslee and I knew from ICA policy we wouldn’t be able to take pictures; I knew from my time with Cloud Gate that we’d find plenty to do simply looking at the likes of S-Curve: a shiny, sinuous band of reflective surface that operates like a fun-house mirror, distorting and disturbing passersby with its mind-bending illusions. But how quickly would even S-Curve grow old, I wondered, and would other pieces in the exhibit fail to excite, being small enough (after all) to all fit into a single room of weirdly disorienting open space?

Alongside the ICA

Even in captivity, the work of Anish Kapoor does not disappoint. Upon entering the exhibit, Leslee and I found ourselves immediately facing S-Curve, and from that moment I felt the metaphoric feet of sensory perception knocked out from under me. Upon first approaching S-Curve, I lost all sense of depth perception, a disorienting sensation that was even stronger when I viewed Brandy Wine, a shiny red disk that flips, magnifies, and distorts objects reflected in its smooth concave surface. While daring an extreme closeup view of Brandy Wine, I repeatedly checked my feet to make sure I wasn’t walking directly into the piece. Apparently I wasn’t the only person thus disoriented by Kapoor’s almost hallucinogenic illusions, as each of the more mind-bending works in the exhibit was accompanied by its own individual museum guard who made sure confused visitors didn’t venture too close.

Hall with a view

Both space and light can be deceiving; we’ve all seen those captions on passenger-side car mirrors warning that objects reflected therein are closer than they appear. But the title of Anish Kapoor’s exhibit at the ICA–Past, Present, Future–suggests the artist is playing with illusions of time as well as space. The oddest piece in Kapoor’s exhibit is, interesting, the eponymous one, Past, Present, Future being a hemispherical mound of putty-like red wax that is continuously molded, smoothed, and spattered by a slow-moving, blade-like wall. Whereas the ICA visitors I observed were inspired to move by the crazy reflections of S-curve, dancing and darting around its winding surfaces to see it (and themselves) in every available light, the folks I saw viewing Past, Present, Future were almost motionless, stunned and silent in front of its oncoming wall. Seeing the smoothed surface of where the blade had been on this swipe or the previous one, people still stopped to watch where the blade was cutting right now. Even if an installation piece is doing nothing but molding the same wax shape over and over and over, there’s something about the process that irresistibly attracts our attention: the proverbial appeal of watching paint dry.

Behind the ICA

I’m no longer the same mound of flesh-colored putty I was when I shot photos of the Cloud Gate in Chicago more than two years ago, and neither is Anish Kapoor: we’ve both been subjected to the ceaseless swipe of time’s shaping blade. Objects reflected across the concave disk of years are smaller than they appear, or larger, or imbued with an entirely distorted sense of meaning. Finding your feet beneath you, now, is sometimes the only way you can navigate in a world that throws you S curves, sculptures, and artists trained in illusion. “We meet again,” said the spider to the fly, and this blogger, like a fly on the wall, wonders where and when the likes of us all will meet again.

For more photos of Louise Bourgeois’ Crouching Spider in San Francisco, click here; for a photo set from Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (minus the camera-free Kapoor exhibit), click here. You can see a slide-show of Past, Present, Future here, and you can see additional photos in reviews here and here and here and here. Enjoy!


Leslee’s view of Josiah McElheny’s Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism is much more orderly than mine, showing the linear repetition of shiny bottles reflected ad infinitum toward a distant vanishing point. From my angle, I saw a chaos of bottles reflecting bottles reflecting other bottles, the clean geometry of classical perspective being replaced by a self-referential visual clusterfuck. From her taller height, Leslee saw the forest; from my shorter one, I saw the trees. I suppose that’s how it is touring a museum with a friend: the two of you can’t step into the same exhibit twice.


As challenging as it can be to understand a single work of art, singly, adding another perspective can sometimes clarify matters. Viewed on its own while you’re on your own, a single work of art speaks a given language; viewed alongside other works and in the company of other views, that same single work might say something else entirely.

When Leslee and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on Friday, we were intent on seeing “El Greco to Velasquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III,” and we did. We hadn’t planned, though, to juxtapose the 17th century works of visionaries such as El Greco with the 20th century Spanish realism of Antonio López García, but we did. How better to understand El Greco’s almost hallucinogenic Toledo landscape than by considering it against López García’s almost photographic Madrid? And how better to appreciate multiple artists’ versions of Mary’s immaculate conception than by viewing them before considering López García’s multiple perspectives of a less-than-immaculate bathroom?

Reflective tableau

Upon exiting the Antonio López García exhibit and on our way to lunch, Leslee and I passed the reflective bottles of McElheny’s “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism,” which are contained in a reflective case situated incongruously between the Museum’s upscale first floor restaurant and the stairway leading to its more moderately priced basement cafeteria. Perhaps by reflecting upon the shiny bottles of twentieth century Modernism, you can better decide where to eat? The MFA’s two dining venues provide another sort of tableau, with a dazzling parade of culinary choices being another kind of aesthetic object reflecting ad infinitum toward a digestive rather than visual vanishing point. Shall I have pizza or stir-fry, or soup, salad, or sandwich? In this century more than previous ones, we live amidst a dizzying array of choices. Is it any wonder we occasionally have problems seeing the forest for the trees?

RSVPmfa with passersby

On the wall opposite the reflective case containing Josiah McElheny’s Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism, along the hallway across from the Museum’s restaurant and on the way to the stairway to its cafeteria, Jim Lambie’s RSVPmfa offers a dizzying array of geometric patterns interrupted by three-dimensional objects–chairs, sequined handbags, and the like–erupting from the starkly flat visual pane into the lived space of passersby. Viewed on its own, RSVPmfa is psychedelic enough, its black and white zebra stripes seeming to swirl with your every step: an optical illusion writ large. As luck, chance, or astute curating would have it, Lambie’s wall seems most interesting when viewed reflected in McElheny’s mirrored case, the endless repetition of last century’s RSVP becoming Postmodern when viewed as an unintentional tableau. Sometimes the best way to view one object is by considering it alongside another radically different one.


Click here for my photo-set of these two juxtaposed works; you can find Leslee’s photos from our day at the MFA here. Enjoy!

Local color

I’ve already posed the philosophical question of whether graffiti qualifies as art, so I won’t go there again. But given today’s Photo Friday theme of Art–and given the fact that it’s snowing again here in New England, so I didn’t take any photos on this morning’s dog-walk–I’m taking this opportunity to re-visit several more images I snapped on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center this past Sunday.

Stencilled sightseers

Annette recently shared a humorous video that tackles the vexing question of What Is Art? It’s a question I ask in a slightly modified form in a Literary Theory class I occasionally teach online: before we address the subject of literary theory, can we first determine exactly what literature is?

It helps, of course, that one of the books we read in this same class–Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction–begins with a chapter titled “What is literature?” It either does or doesn’t help that Eagleton duly refuses to answer his own question. “What is literature,” Eagleton asks; “What do you think it is,” Eagleton responds, as do I. One coy way of answering Eagleton’s question is to note that literature is a field of inquiry focused on questions that have more than one answer. Whenever students press me for “the answer” to Eagleton’s question, I note that my copy of the book doesn’t come with an Answer Key, the question “What is literature?” being a question I ask because I’m genuinely interested in discovering some decent answers, not because I’m looking for students to read my mind.

Here's looking at you

After we spend about a week grappling with the most basic of literary questions–how, after all, can you move on to the sticky task of interpreting literature if you don’t even know what literature is?–I’ll eventually observe that I personally think the very discussion and debate we’re engaged in is in large part what defines “literature.” Given a blank brick wall, most folks won’t find much to argue or analyze; given a brick wall with some sort of image painted therein, we can begin to pose (and debate) questions such as why is the image there, what does it mean, and what value or significance does it have in our lives?

And yet, even this answer is incomplete and unsatisfactory, for it ignores issues of intent. If audiences define art, then an accidentally spilled bucket of paint can qualify if onlookers subsequently wonder why or to what purpose said paint was spilled. Right now in New England, many winter-weary folks are shaking their fists at the sky and wondering “Why”: does that mean Yet Another Snowfall could qualify as Art if enough of us got together and started debating its meaning?

The eyes have it

Things are complicated even further when I realize I have contradictory views about my own blog, which may or may not qualify as “art” or “literature” depending on whom and how you ask. If you were to ask me if my written posts qualify as literature, I’d probably say yes…but if you were to ask me if my posted pictures qualify as art, I’d probably say no. As a writer, I see my words as being consciously crafted to communicate an artful intent: yes, it does my writerly heart proud to think that someone might read my words and ponder issues of meaning or significance in response. But as shutter-snapper, I don’t see the pictures I post as having the same intentional import: the fact that I shot this rather than that is almost always accidental, and art (in my mind at least) is about authorial intention. If I snapped an interesting image by accident, would that image be art, or simply fortuitous? In my mind at least, the pictures I post are illustrations, but they aren’t art, for they don’t rise to the same level of conscious craft that my carefully chosen words do.

And yet, as a literary critic, I also know that authors themselves are often the least credible source when it comes to interpreting their own art, which again suggests a certain element of accident (or at least surprise) when it comes to creative matters. If an author or artist was thinking Idea A when she or he crafted a given work, does that preclude the possibility that Ideas B, C, and/or D might be appropriate interpretations as well? It seems the very questions “What is art” and “What is literature” are themselves rather artful and literary, inspiring as they do a complex internal debate that appears to be ongoing. My copy of Terry Eagleton’s book definitely does not come with an answer key, and I ask these questions because the more I think about them, the further it seems I am from actually answering them.