Sunday, November 18, 2007

more math problems

I'm in the stomach of the pelican, in the post-modern section of the Milwaukee Art Museum. This is where the Conceptualists meet the Pop Artists. There are gaggles of school children clumped together here and there, held together by the earnest enthusiasm of their teachers, everyone to be glad to be out in the world for just a few hours.

"What's Brillo?" the boy loudly asks as the group negotiates the Warhol cube on the floor.

"Not so loud, Dylan" the teacher responds. "It's called called pop art - for popular. Artists made work about what was popular at time" she explains. She looks at the retired couple quickly moving through the gallery and, as if to ask for the forgiveness of zealous children on a fine, fall day when there are no hard lessons to be learned says, "they were learning about catch-phrases this morning, advertising, and how to influence people."

The couple nods, smiles at the children and move toward the expressionists.

I turn and look at the work against the far wall. I don't know the artist, but it must be a contemporary of Judd, Flavin, and Lewit because it's in the same room as them, and the galleries maintain a strict linearity. This work is a finely machined convex disc, about 2 feet in diameter. The outer surface has been ground so that the glass is opaque. It's mounted so that the disc extends elegantly into the air, about eye level above the gallery floor and in a plane normal to the wall about 4 or 5 feet from the wall surface. Two, no, more likely four spotlights, I don't look to see which it is, are directed at the disc so that 4 other discs of the same dimensions are projected onto the wall behind it and to the sides. Together, they form an image of five intersecting circles when viewed from a distance - my current vantage point. Up close, one can marvel at the craftsmanship of the disc, the mounting bracket, how the light illuminates the flatness of the white wall, but the overall magic of the work is lost. It's like learning how the card trick is done before you see the trick for the first time.

The school group comes up behind me in the doorway and the teacher gathers them in a bunch.

"OK. How many discs are there?" she asks pointing to the work.

"Five!" "Four!" "Twelve!"the children shout, some caring, some not. "One." the boy, Dylan, says calmly, as if he's been through the museum before and this is not his favorite piece.

"Dylan is right," the teacher says and the children rush to confirm his answer. "Careful, careful," but the work is safe from enthusiasm because a rail has been erected to thwart the intersection of art and life.

I listen to the teacher deconstruct the work, explaining how the work is a mirage constructed with lights.

"Actually, I think there's five", I say from the doorway. The teacher looks up, which, in truth, is part of my motive, I want to catch her eye like the art work on the wall, I want her to know, like Dylan wants her to know that I'm smart and alive. And that I understand the work. The children turn to me, now unsure of the answer.

I move toward them, looking at the children, and not at the woman, who's taken a step back as this stranger approches her class. "It's a simple problem. Look on the wall." I move my hand around the perimeter stopping briefly at each projected image. "How many discs on the wall?"

"Four!" they shout in unison.

"Precisely. And how many discs here?" I point to the object.


"And four plus one equals ___?"

"Five!" Now they are beaming, because someone has successfully challenged the teacher. I beam back.

The teacher looks at me at, looks at the children. She wants to smile. She wants to laugh out loud. She wants to walk around the lake. Have a long lunch. Listen to the leaves scatter on the walk. Talk about what's really important in life. What her plans are. Where she'll be in 5 years. She wants this. I can tell. Just for a moment, I can tell that she wants this.

"The beauty of art, children" she says as she turns away from me, "is that everyone is free to their own interpretation."

a few Milwaukee architectural gems

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