Sunday, November 18, 2012

Exhibit Inspirations: Let's Taste This Matisse

This painting was not in the "Taste For Modernism"
show that Naomi & I saw, but there was a Degas there,
and all the other interesting paintings I wanted to us are
still under copyright - including the Matisse that inspired
the headline. If you live in SF, go taste the show!
I studied art history somewhat extensively in my undergrad years, with a primary focus on the two wildly diverging categories of Symbolist art & poetry and revolutionary cinema/performance art. Which admittedly is kind of like saying I studied cooking and focused on Japanese sushi-making traditions and Azerbaijani cuisine, but whatever, I went to Hampshire. I got super into it, joyously into it, and yet, despite cutting off all my hair in a performance piece about subverting the expectations of the oppressing gaze and all the hours I spent writing analytical essays about the urban sublime in the paintings of Fernand Khnopff, I still secretly hated art museums. Classical art museums were boring; modern art museums were infuriating. (I still have a draft of a five-thousand-word two-part rant about Jeff Koons sitting around here somewhere, but I'll spare you the yelling and the aggravated caps locking.) Every now and again I'd stumble into an exhibit that was a total revelation, but for the most part I was bored stiff and/or angry at all times. Until, that is, this past Friday's excursion to the de Young with Naomi of Brush Fire Painting. Naomi, it turns out, had read my post about synesthesia, and it turned out she, too, is synesthetic - in fact, she has a form of it I envy greatly, color-taste synesthesia. For example, she informed me, my bright cobalt blue jacket tasted of mint.

An art museum, needless to say, is an extraordinary place to hang out in the company of someone whose perception of color so obviously and radically differs from your own. You've all probably had that one stoned moment where you and your habitual partner in drugged-out-revelations were all like wait, dude. What if the color you see as totally the color that I see as green? and then you were both all like whooaaa and then you both forgot about it because how could we even know, man and anyway, icccce creeeeeam. (No, really, I know this isn't just me. Come on.) Now, that's partly crazy because there's just no way to know for sure. So when someone comes along who definitely experiences colors differently from you - because she freakin' tastes them, man - it can make for a pretty radical moment. Or, at least, it did for me. Because, of course, I wanted right away to know what every color tastes like. And was it different seeing this painting of brightly colored gumballs than this abstract with blue blobs? What about charcoal sketches? What about the color of the walls?

As Naomi tried to articulate to me the complexity of her sensory experience - which she wound up saying was almost more like a feeling of different sensations in different parts of her mouth than it was like strict color-taste associations - I found myself far, far more aware of my own physical response to works of art than I'd ever been before in my life. The blue and puce in André Derain's 1906 Bridge over the Riou made us both so anxious and uncomfortable we had to run away. I suddenly realized that Henri Matisse's 1903 Cyrano, with its flash of tangerine and its wild ultramarines, looked to me exactly like the taste of the absurdly-colored synthetic fruit roll ups I craved when I was eight. (There was nothing negative about this, mind you; I loved those things precisely for their vividness. I was brought up on fruit leathers, a far tamer and less exotically-colored snack, which were made of actual fruit and were not even remotely turquoise in color.) The more I looked, and the more I grilled Naomi about her polyphonous reactions, the more I noticed the ways in which my aesthetic reactions were subtly but intensely colored (so to speak) by the quiet, unobtrusive ways my body reacted to the shades and shapes on every canvas. I had never paid any attention before to that aspect of my engagement with a piece of art, because, well, my mind is a loud and shouty place, and it has Opinions about things that occasionally drown out, um, everything else. And wow, was it interesting. Looking at the physical reaction and then reflecting on my nice thinky intellectual assessment, I could totally see how much more related they were than I had ever suspected. I can come up with all sorts of tidy aesthetic reasons that Derain canvas made me so unhappy, but isn't it infinitely more interesting if, instead of saying "I don't like it," I can say, "That tiny yellow square in the upper right hand corner makes me anxious, and that pink patch on the left makes me nauseated"? I think so...

(Interesting that we were primarily wandering around the special exhibition called "A Taste For Modernism" while discussing synesthesia - I suspect they didn't expect it to be taken quite so literally. We did manage to refrain from licking any paintings, but that was more because they used some poisonous shit in their paints back then...)

So now, of course, I mainly want to put together an exhibition designed to draw out such a visceral reaction. What paintings strike you as so richly colored or so vivid you can't help but have some form of gustatory inclination towards them?

1 comment:

  1. I'm always left without the time I want to comment fully, lately, but I did want to mention that I used to paint with a friend that was color blind. That was always an interesting experience, and one of the reasons he liked to paint with me was so that I could help him with his colors. We had many interesting conversations about what color meant and how it related to how people experienced it.


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