Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Goodnight, Good World

From Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, Illustrated by Clement Hurd
Trying to look at art with my children, two boys ages five and seven, can be an exercise in frustration. Pursuing my own thoughts and reactions while fielding their questions and trying to keep them from backing into artwork is next to impossible. I by no means idealize a child’s reaction to art, nor do I elevate their opinions for being “more pure” than my own. As far as I am concerned a child is just another viewer, and one less inclined to pick up on art historical references or contemporary context. I am happy to leave to them naive encounter; I like my informed one. That said, there are times when looking at art with my children, and in a sense as they do, seems to yield a particularly nice experience.

This weekend I went to the The Front with my sons. It was the Sunday after the Saint Claude shows opened, two Sundays before they came down and I worried I would miss them if I didn’t just go, entourage and all. There were two shows at The Front. The show Clouds/Cows occupied rooms one and two. The show is described this way on The Front’s website:

"Clouds/Cows, a collaboration between visual artist Jessie Vogel and performance makers Nat & Veronica, was initially conceived and presented as a theater piece. In this exhibition the artists attempt to access the same material through a different entry point by recontextualizing the work in a gallery."

In the second room there was an untitled installation. I learned later that it had been the set of a performance. A piece of plywood with a large, circular hole separated the ordinary space of the gallery from a scene on the other side. The gallery side was dark and the other space–pastoral, fantastic, and otherworldly–was lit for an effect sort of like the dioramas in the Museum of Natural History in New York. I was also reminded of a book I had as a child, a book I now read to my children each year at Easter time. We read it just yesterday. 

In the book, titled The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward, illustrated by Marjorie Hack, there is an Easter egg with a tiny scene inside. Looking for the proper name for “eggs with scenes inside” I found an article about Victorian sugar eggs in The New York Times. The article is titled The Better World Inside The Sugar Egg. Exactly. This idea of an idyllic world you can only look into goes back so far in my consciousness that is seems to predate my consciousness. This idyllic place, this illusion inside the egg, or illustration, or diorama, is so perfect that as a child you pine for it though, what do you know about pining? This pining is at the very root of my addiction of looking into paintings, of making them. This piece at The Front, seeing it with my children too I suppose, reminded me of the early magic of the enchanted view, the promise of an alternative and perfect place.

"It’s a cloud!" one of my sons said. "It’s a rabbit!" the other added. Floating above the grass was a rabbit-shaped cloud! There was real green grass on the ground! And carrot stubs! Not the slimy nubbed kind that you buy in a crowded plastic bag at the grocery store but the fresh air market kind that look more natural, more old fashioned, more like we really want carrots to look! This word “real” hovered in my mind , a crucial part of my experience looking at this piece.

This rabbit-shaped cloud was made of wool, I think. Wait, back up: I am still not sure if it was really rabbit-shaped or if my sons and I imagined it, though I find the carrots a pretty good clue that we were on the right track. Inside this cloud were the bluish flickerings you see sometimes in a lone thundercloud. I don’t suppose Victorian sugar eggs or children's books were on the minds of the artists, but still...through a circular hole was a landscape over which floated a rabbit-shaped thundercloud. I was reminded of another children’s book, two, actually, written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd: Good Night Moon and The Runaway Bunny. In the former there are illustrations of a sort of weird, slow, idealized world held together by dreamy lines like “Goodnight nobody...Goodnight mush.” In The Runaway Bunny there is …wait for it…a rabbit shaped cloud!

From The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, Illustrated by Clement Hurd

Because my children were there I was not tempted to think too hard about the meaning or making of this installation and for that I am glad. I simply enjoyed the cascade of nostalgic references it provoked. I am still enjoying them as I write this. And this is not the topical and overused collective hipster nostalgia of mixtapes or instagram filters that seem to almost eradicate true nostalgic response by efforts to seize and brand it. In fact, I am not sure that the artists were even going for nostalgia, which was probably why I was able to access it. This nostalgia reached back to the recesses of early childhood, maybe just before or just after I dropped the spoon from the highchair enough times to understand “real” space. Once upon a time the distinction between real space and illusory space was nebulous. We learned to navigate real space by trial and error: dropping the spoon, trying to grasp the cylinder of water coming from the faucet, by falling down. The illusory world remained a mystery because access was available only through looking. We came to know the illusory world in pictures books, in landscape paintings on the wall, in small color TV screens containing seemingly tactile, pre-CGI worlds like the enduring and bizarre stop motion animation television special Here Comes Peter Cottontail.

Still from Here Comes Peter Cottontail
The New York Times article explains the remembered lure of the sugar egg: "The diorama was a glimpse into a blue-sky world, whose tiny inhabitants hunted colored eggs or enjoyed a springtime picnic. These were the sort of genteel activities I longed for, but understood were unattainable." The excruciating pleasure of longing, the pull of unattainable worlds haunts both art making and childhood. My older son is working tirelessly on building a hot air balloon. He wants to fly over the neighborhood. And why not?

Across the street on the ground in front of Good Children Gallery my sons found a scattering of beads, maybe from a broken necklace. One of the beads was a plastic, coral-colored peace sign the size of a penny. My younger son just learned to recognize a peace sign though he is still fuzzy on the concept. Inside the gallery, he was then enchanted to find a large painting of a peace sign, Study For Dark Peace by Stephen Collier. Huh, I thought. 

Today I woke to news of bombings, this time in in Brussels. Now, as I write this, the idea of unattainable worlds floats lazily in my mind with the cloud-like thought that everything has meaning, everything is connected. Praise the artists and children. Praise the idyllic world.

From Cows/Clouds by Jessie Vogel and Nat and Veronica

From The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward, illustrated by Majorie Hack
Stephen Collier   Study for Dark Peace   Acrylic, Pencil and Enamel on Dyed Canvas


  1. I really like the connection between looking at art and "pining" - evocative!
    Wishing for something different than what you have around you.

  2. I so enjoyed reading this, my dear Emily. Your voice and words are powerful and very much missed. So glad that you shared this experience with those little fellas too...they are so lucky to have you as their mama!