Pictures at an Exhibition

In January, I spent a few days in downtown Chicago — a city that is about 135 miles south of where I live.  I devoted one of those days to viewing and savoring the resplendent artwork at the Art Institute of Chicago.  I have been to the Institute many times, and I always find new sources of thought, pleasure, and stimulation as I wander among the galleries.  I smiled to see the first page of the visitor’s guide: ” What to See in an Hour.”  An hour?!  No way!  But I suppose for some folks, in some circumstances, “an hour” is the only way.

Going to the Art Institute of Chicago is no everyday occupation for me.  Among the many world-famous works of art in the galleries, on that day I found myself drawn especially to three:

  • Vincent vanGogh:  Bedroom in Arles
  • Edouard Vuillard:  Room at the Chateau des Clayes, and
  • Doris Lee:  Thanksgiving.

These three are paintings of the everydayness of domestic life:  the warmth of the colors in the bed, table, chairs, window, pillows, wood floor in vanGogh’s Bedroom in Arles; the beautiful blues in the mantel piece, the table cloth, mirror, in this corner of the Room at the Chateau des Clayes by Vuillard; and the red and white linoleum on the floor, kettles on the stovepipe stove, broom leaning against the wall, rolling pin, calendar, aprons on the women, in the old-fashioned kitchen for Lee’s Thanksgiving.  If you’d like to pull these up to have a look, go to http://artinstituteofchicago.org.

Of late, I have also come across references to three 20th century photographers of the everyday, at least one of whom drew harsh criticism in the 1970s.  William Eggleston, whose works constituted the first major solo all-color photography exhibition in the history of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1976, endured initial strong derision. Comments by the critics ranged from “perfectly banal” and “perfectly boring” to “the most hated show of the year.”  The exhibition catalogue was titled William Eggleston’s Guide;  “Guide to what?” the critics asked, referring to photographic subjects that included a tiled bathroom wall and the interior of a kitchen stove.  One of Eggleston’s now iconic images is of a tricycle in a suburban setting with two ranch houses and a carport in the background (M. Feeney, Big Wheels:  William Eggleston’s l970 portrait of a tricycle got a movement going.  Smithsonian, August 2011, p. 10-12.)  As Feeney, the writer for the Smithsonian notes, “The whole thing is a model of unobtrusive artistry amid the everyday nondescript.  It seems so simple and artless.  Looked at closely, though, it’s as cunning as a seduction, as ordered as a sonnet.”  If you pull up a website for Eggleston, you will see photographs of a grave site, plastic bags of trash in a pile, objects under a bed, packages of frozen foods in an over-iced freezer, an abandoned swing set.   Commonplace?  “Yes, and proudly so” says Feeney.

Zoe Strauss’s photographs focus on people living in poverty.  “Zoe Strauss:  Ten Years” is a show that just opened in January at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  The show includes some 150 photos.  Born in 1970, Strauss says her goal is “to create an epic narrative that reflects the beauty and struggle of everyday life.”   She focuses on the working class experience and, often, the most disenfranchised people in contemporary United States.  The photographs are sometimes harsh and painful (“Alzheimer’s, 2002″) and, more rarely, joyous (“Mattress Flip“) (http://philamuseum.org).

Third, a book has just been published on the photography of Arthur Tress:  “ARTHUR TRESS:  San Francisco 1964.”  Tress was known for his “keen sense of the everyday absurd.”  The book reveals recently discovered photographs taken by Tress when he was 23 years old (James A. Ganz, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, DelMonico Books/ Prestel, 2012, 112 pages).  In the summer of 1964, San Francisco was the site of a culture clash.  The Beatles launched their first North American tour from this city and it was the site of the 28th Republican National Convention — representing what has been called “the intersection of the absurd and the mundane” (I’m not sure which was which!).   The book includes an interview with Tress regarding the making and rediscovery of these photographs of street scenes, shop windows, and other signs of the San Francisco landscape.

In reading about the various reactions (above) to these artistic expressions of and attentiveness to the everydayness of life, I am reminded of the “seen but not noticed” point I made in my Slagle lecture (2006).  Everyday life is what we see but don’t notice in our everyday existences.  To many it seems “banal” and “boring” as was the case for many critics of Eggleston’s work.  But to me, the everyday is arguably the crux of life, and it definitely deserves its due in terms of appreciation and attention in all forms of cultural expression.

Hasselkus, B.R., (2006).  2006 Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lecture — The World of Everyday Occupation:  Real People, Real Lives.  American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, 9-20.

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