Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wing and Wisdom

I don't know about you, but I find it is getting harder to know the truth and wisdom of things. As I get older, intelligence or "smarts" has lost its glow. A lot of very well intentioned, smart people have taken themselves and us to places we shouldn't be. Think government.

I value wisdom more as I get older even though it is hard to define. Wisdom is like pornography. In that famous statement, Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward said he couldn't define pornography, but knew it when he saw it. Same for wisdom. A 30 year old could analyze his/her situation and start a Roth IRA for retirement; analyzing expense ratios, asset allocations and then rebalencing periodically after consistent investment. None of that is wisdom. Wisdom is knowing that the investment program, once in place, should not take up too much thought, not take up too much life. That is not what we are here for and that gained insight is wisdom.

So I'm happy to report I found wisdom last week when I went to visit the new wing of the North Carolina Museum of Art on Blue Ridge Road. The visit had a low priority. I've driven by the Museum several times, glancing as I went. At first blush, it appeared the powers that be decided to commemorate an aspect of North Carolina life hidden to most of us in the populated areas - a hog farm or a correctional facility, but as I pulled into the entrance, the structure took on interest. After parking I wasn't sure where to go. I followed a small sign that led to what appeared to be the front entrance. The new wing had no concern for placement among the roadways and I then followed a walkway that looked like it led to an exterior glass panel...or a door. The means of entry was not self-evident. I was prepared to suffer public humiliation, walk up to the side of a building and try an open it.


The glass panel opened up though. It is as if the structure was saying to entrants, "Pay attention Buster. This is not some Walmart you're heading into, this building is special!"

And it is.

When you walk in you are immediately impressed by the interior's clean lines and sparseness. I usually don't like minimalism, but it works here. In some places the tall, white metal, paneled walls reach the sky, literally. Area skylights shed muted but natural illumination that enhance the works of art; in other places whole glass sections welcome the outside coming inside. It must be fun to be there on a rainy day. This is the closest an art museum will come to a convertible or retractable dome sports stadium. The warren of exhibition areas rest on lightly shaded bamboo hardwood floors. The building's design effect lets the art breathe.

How hard it must have been for the designers and museum board members to make sure the space served the art? We all have a need to be liked, including architecture, and to be liked means to be noticed. It would have been easy for the designers to add a "wow" factor, to overshadow the art, to forget its mission, to dance fast to the slow music. How easy it would have been to stick some design embellishments here or there; to say, "Heck with the art!" But no one did. The space serves and honors the art because everyone's eye was on the same ball. If art is a boat then the building is the centerboard. That's wisdom.

What of the art itself? That's up to you. I've always enjoyed art, but I'm no expert. Being in front of a painting beats being in front of a TV anytime. It's always fun to find out what the attraction is to a particular painting or sculpture; trying to find out what the creator is conveying. Many moments can be spent seeking a personal connection with the painter. Why that scene? Why those colors? Why that theme? If writing is thinking with words then painting is, well, thinking with paint. The painter stood in front of the canvas possibly several hundred years ago creating something of value and now we stand in front of the same canvas several hundred years later trying to realize that value. Isn't life interesting!

I won't go into a litany of the works I like because what should matter to you is what you like. The Wing has an eclectic collection and some new acquisitions, a Picasso for one. During my visit I saw people drawn to it. I looked at it and it has incredible strength and power, but to me it's a kerfuffle of power without direction, flat, and without nuance. But what force! As if Picasso randomly opened a shelf full of exterior house paint cans, dipped the barrel of a colt .45 handgun into the cans and then coated the canvas. Rambo after a fine arts course, but a Rambo with talent! Others see things in that painting and as I quickly walked away from it, others lingered. That used to bother me, but as I get older I am comforted by other people's appreciation of things that remain a mystery to me.

So you want a splendid surprise? Go to the North Carolina Museum of Art and open the side of the building. If you tell them Grumpy sent you, they won't charge you admission. Sometimes art seems to be surrounded by a pretension that is off putting, but don't let that put you off. When I go into an art museum I always hope to find the definitive family portrait of Huey, Dewey and Louie. No luck so far but I'm enjoying the search.

I hope you have a search too.

Worth noting: Designed by Thomas Phifer of Thomas Phifer & Partners, NY
Local architects, Pearce Brinkley Cease and Lee Architects of NC

NC Art Museum
2210 Blue Ridge Rd, Raleigh
Hours: Closed Mondays
Tues-Thurs 10am-5pm
Friday 10am-9pm
Sat-Sun 10am-5pm

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