Monday, January 10, 2011

A visit to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

My husband and I visit Richmond every year in January, to celebrate a late Christmas with family members. Fortunately they are art enthusiasts who enjoy taking us to view various exhibits during our trips. We haven’t been able to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for some time, partly because their facilities have been closed for renovation and, sadly, because family illnesses and transitions have required our attention during our visits in recent years.

But this year, all systems were GO for our trip to the museum, and I was looking forward to seeing the new building. I was not prepared, however, for one of the most impressive and rewarding museum visits I can ever remember having.

The building itself is tremendous (see above). The architecture is sleek and elegant, designed in a way that complements the 19th century structures nearby. The interiors are spacious and inviting, with warm-toned marble walls and carefully spaced courtyards and lobbies. The gallery layouts are well-considered too; in the 20th-century-art rooms, for example, the various creative movements are distinctly separated but arranged with care, so that the viewer has a sense of how the periods are both unique and interrelated. The well-written wall documentation provides facts that inform but do not overwhelm the viewer.

I was especially impressed by the show of Sally Mann’s photographs in the Special Exhibition gallery. This exhibit included examples from all of Mann’s series since the 1970s, but was hung in a non-chronological way that revealed the various turns and connections her ideas have made over the years. Here again, the wall blurbs were informative and stimulating without overwhelming the visual experience. (I’ve noticed at the MFA in Boston, for example, that I read their ceiling-to-floor wall documentation and start to feel a little bit like “get on with the art, already.”)

I was also very excited by the galleries showing 21st-century art. It seems clear that 21st-century artists are individuals who are “doing their own thing,” taking notice of the past but not in a way that boxes them into a “movement,” as in the 20th century. I left feeling inspired as an artist and, as a viewer, very excited about the art world in the present, and certainly for the future.

Of course I needed to visit old favorites and take a few touristy shots. I posed in front of a Franz Kline (below) and my husband posed in front of a James Rosenquist. (Yes, we did receive weird looks from the security guards. But as the museum’s stated policy is to allow non-flash shots, we went ahead and said, “Hi, Mom!” to the camera.)

One work in particular that stood out to me was “Fast Track Home” (below), a piece made in 1999 by an artist I had never heard of before, Willie Cole. Cole created the pattern on the canvas by scorching the surface with a hot iron. Different heat settings or lengths of time held against the canvas created a range of browns. Once you know the technique, it is easy to discern the triangular shape of the iron’s base. But the intricate pattern Cole created, and the artwork’s references to female identity and history, among other things, take the work far beyond technical considerations.

I was walking on air when we left (which we did only because the museum was closing, not because we were ready to leave!), and am excited to make the museum a planned part of our annual Virginia visits.

All photos in this post taken by my husband, Kevin Seward.


Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

Thank you for your article on this museum. I've never been there but have heard from others that it is a very nice museum.

I love the Willie Cole piece. I am always amazed when I see such a creative and unique application of a technique that I've seen others use. Rather than looking tired, it is fresh and original.

As to Franz Kline and James Rosenquist....well I adore the work of both of these artist! Wasn't it fun to be able to document yourself with that art.

Catherine Carter said...

It's always been a good museum, but now it is a great one. Yes, that Willie Cole piece is amazing. And yes, Kline is a favorite of mine and Rosenquist is a favorite of my husband's! Thank you for reading and commenting, Terry.