March 24-30, 2014

Pollinating paintings

By Molly Rector

I’m sitting in the café attached to the Hyde Park Arts Center in Chicago. The café is hip, modern, with clean lines, metallic light fixtures, and walls the color of persimmons. From where I’m sitting I can see a small portion of one of the Center’s galleries – a 5’x4’ canvas divided by straight silver lines into segments that altogether give the impression of a big star. Each segment is painted differently, so the star becomes like a quilt of paintings, rather than a single one. 

I’m visiting my friend Hilary, about whom I’ve written before – she’s the one who often selflessly shares her ideas about art with me, so that I’ll have something to write about. Today is no different. I wonder out loud what I should write about, and she gently reminds me that I am sitting twenty feet away from the entryway to several huge rooms filled with art. 

After exploring these two galleries, I am thinking about a recent trip I made to Northwest Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum. Crystal Bridges has a Modernist exhibit going on right now – a pretty extensive display of paintings and a few scultpures by Picasso, Matisse, Gris, Rodin and their contemporaries. Compared to this little Chicago arts center, Crystal Bridges’ collection appears very painting-heavy. The permanent collection in particular seems to include very few works that utilize mixed-media or different types of texture (which is not to say none, there is diversity in the collection). These paintings are mostly just that: masterful examples of the different ways to put paint on canvas. 

The art here is contemporary, and much of it is mixed-media. Many of the pieces hanging on the wall are based on wood and metal instead of canvas. Some of them include copper wire, quilting materials, shells – one of them even utilizes cut outs from an orange sweater. It is striking what a variety of visual styles is visible in the galleries adjoining the coffee shop. 

When I arrived in Chicago, Hilary gestured to a bare wall in her apartment. “That wall is empty,” she told me, proposing that we do something to fill it up while I’m here. Our perusal of the work at this Arts Center has us convinced that whatever we do, it needs to include lots of different colors and materials. I like this – the way that just seeing art becomes inspiring, makes people want to do work in the same vein – a kind of flattering imitation. In a certain sense, it’s a kind of visual “intertext” in which exposure to different ways of seeing and representing things changes a viewer’s sense of beauty and visual stimulation. One of my students explained this concept as a kind of pollination of ideas, in which the observer carries pieces of one idea into their perception of the next. I guess in that sense, I’m carrying the Modernist pollen from Crystal Bridges to the contemporary paintings here in Hyde Park. We’ll see what kinds of flowers result.