WHEN I WALK INTO AN EXHIBITION, I try to resist contextualization, as tempting as it is to try and create a narrative frame for what I see. Everything has happened and nothing has happened yet. So, where does that leave me? I try to be present for what is happening now, as unlikely as that is. Sometimes there’s help available, explanatory statements in the gallery or additional information by or about the artist, and I’m thankful for it. As it happens, City of Seals, the current show up in David Petersen’s gallery, comes with its own soundtrack, a companion CD. Like most people raised in the age of TV and movies, I find it hard to miss musical cues–major to minor chords, gain and reverb, the jangly low-fidelity clatter of ennui; the sounds help define what is happening.
Walk into City of Seals and, first, you notice all the color. Color is not yet a carcinogen in this town. It’s a good thing, color, lots of color, one color balancing with every other one, trying every memory in a different hue — a whole spectrum of them. The colors are held within approximating outlines that remember our past and our present, saturated lines of familiar ease: someone’s parents’ cocktail party at which everyone is in a good mood because no one has told them yet about all the things that can go wrong in a too colorful world; when they were nearly happy; when they seemed so young. Someone tells a joke about how many pharmacists it takes to screw in a lightbulb.
I’m not sure where I’m supposed to sit in this place; I’m not sure how to order a sandwich.
There is a flag bent on the wall. If we weren’t otherwise enjoying ourselves, we might salute it, like we’d salute a platter of careless hope and glasses of wine from bottles bearing names like Lido and Rapture. No one worries about what these words mean. Where would that get you? And no one wears the flag as a lapel pin; that’s not what flags are for. A flag is meant to be disregarded, generally speaking — that’s what real freedom is. It’s something that hangs in the corner of every rarely used government building and meeting hall, an assumption, like butter on the table. Nothing could matter less or be more central to our identity.
Underneath all the color is texture, woven texture, tight and certain; the center can hold, and it always has. You can see it; it’s right there under the surface, what we are all made of, the fabric we put everything on and put ourselves in and then paint in bright, exuberant patterns.
I’m not sure where I’m supposed to sit in this place; I’m not sure how to order a sandwich. But I’ll figure it out; it’s nothing to worry about.
So. Try though I might otherwise, I end up contextualizing the experience of being in this City of Seals — I’m sure I recognize some familiar contours, as idiosyncratic and subjective as that recognition surely is. The thing is I can’t help it. Nobody can. Our civilization is based on such questionable practices — these personally created frames we put around our experiences. But the parsing gives us something to talk about and, really, that’s what we need more of these days, isn’t it? Questionable practices, shared or eccentric, to talk about.
Noted exhibition details:
About the author: Jay Orff is a writer, musician and filmmaker living in Minneapolis. His fiction has appeared in Reed, Spout, Chain and Harper’s Magazine.