Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cars Alluring; But Is It Art?

For our anniversary, Mark and I went to see The Allure of the Automobile at the Portland Art Museum.

The phrase that sums up our experience: It was a car show. And by "car" I mean million dollar vintage race cars or vehicles that really only fit two people (and their suitcases).

After looking at the fifteen or so cars, we decided that we were looking at craft and history, but I wasn't sure that we were looking at art. Mark (and I) had hoped that there would be original draft designs on display. And I'd hoped that we'd see more radiator cap tops and sculpture. I think the show would have benefitted with the inclusion of other period objects, so we could have seen how the cars' aesthetic was interacting with the aesthetic of the time. "Well, I guess this is like looking at jewelry," Mark said.

After about ninety minutes of looking at cars, we took a break to the modern art wing. This was mostly because I was having trouble wrapping my (admittedly pedestrian) art appreciation brain around the concept of car-as-art-object, and I figured that if I looked at things like eighteen inch black plastic cubes, video loops of sunsets set to the Apocalypse Now movie soundtrack, and pictures of dumpsters taped over with silver tape (I'm not making this up, you know), I'd be able to go back to the car show with a better appreciation for the artistry.

I fell in love with Mark all over again as we chortled our way through the Modern Wing. On our way back to the cars, we gave a detailed artistic critique of the way the metal etching on the elevator walls made organic reflections of the lights. And then we were back with the cars.

Going off to view alternate art didn't quite work. I was still mentally contrasting and comparing Allure with a show consisting of Kitchen Aide mixers all lined up on artistically lit pedestals.

I made a few sketches.

One thing I noticed about this show that was different from other shows was how (ahem) aggressive everyone was with photographing (they didn't exactly say, "Get out of my way!" but they didn't say "please" either). The photograph frenzy was strange, like being on a kind of birding expedition -- and I guess when I've been in museums before, people take pictures of the art. At Allure, as often as not, people would have their pictures taken as they were standing in front of cars, sort of like one would have one's picture taken with a recently-caught trophy fish.

I enjoy photographing objects in the Egyptian wing of the MET. So I can understand the thrill of phonographic acquisition. Still....

My favorite car was the sting ray because it looked just a little bit like Luke Skywalker's land speeder. Mark's was a 1930's Chitty-chitty-bang-bang style car. I liked how the headlights on some of the older cars had magnifying lenses built into their glass, or how designs (like a candelabra) were etched into the bulb's glass. A few cars had hinged wrought-iron-looking bumpers, which was cool. But the award for most interesting goes to the car with a third, swiveling headlight stuck in front of the radiator.

We left the car show and went upstairs to look at the silverware. I really looked at those 17th-Century chocolate pots and tried to imagine that I was looking at the cars. But it wasn't the same -- the cars didn't have clawed feet, or labyrinths of leafy bronze vines coiling around Titans. The cars looked like tanks, or teardrops, or women's breasts, or phalluses, or airplanes, or cellphones. They weren't even SteamPunk. I guess cars fall into the same category for me as all those endless Madonna With Child portraits from the renaissance.


Afterward, we had dinner at The Portland City Grill. It was fun because we were thirty stories high. We ate good food while looking at Mount Hood. We got to watch skateboarders on the roof of a parking garage beneath us, and also the gyres of a red-tailed hawk.
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