My 10-year-old daughter Naomi and I went to the opening of Kathryn Armstrong’s “Worth Remembering” exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA) at CityWay during the early evening of April 8. Naomi wasn’t particularly excited about this event but was even less excited about the prospect of staying home alone — not that I'd let her do that anyway. Daddies can be dictators sometimes, and I was dead-set on seeing the first show under Paula Katz as iMOCA's interim executive director. Would it be as cerebral as others I recalled from Katz's time as director of the Herron Galleries at the Herron School of Art and Design?
Don't get me wrong: I don't necessarily have a problem with cerebral. The only problem I have is when the text on the wall doesn't seem to describe the actual art. Or when a piece's concept is only rendered intelligible with the help of didactics. And for the record, I liked much of what I saw in the Herron Galleries during Katz's tenure there, even though I saw the inflated-text-on-the-wall-thing happen there once or twice.
Anyway, so we went, my daughter and I, arriving in the middle of a rainstorm. Entering the iMOCA gallery, I could see immediately that Kathryn Armstrong’s work was multifaceted; that is, there were numbered exhibits in photography, sculpture, painting, and drawing and a laundry list of mediums and or/found objects: paper, glass jars, studio clothes, pressed flowers, string, plastic cups, glass bottles, etc... placed on white shelves along the walls. What, I wondered, was the concept that glued all this stuff together?
But, more urgently, I had a question for Naomi: was she hungry? As we were looking over a serving table packed with cheeses, hummus, crackers, olives, and cured meats, she told me no. (But I bet she would have been a taker if the table had been piled high with Doritos and Skittles.) Fortunately, I’d just eaten dinner. I’m acutely aware of how hard it is to appreciate art on an empty stomach. And the fairly sizable crowd of people (sizable for an art event) seemed to have the same idea, as just about all of them were gathered around the tables in the center of the gallery munching on hors d’ouevres or cued up at the cash bar. At least in comparison to the alcohol and the food and the conversation revolving around these items, it must be said, the exhibition itself seemed like a distant second in terms of captivating its audience.
Nevertheless, I wanted to figure this work out. Looking around the gallery space, I didn’t exactly see a lot of obvious visual clues, so I picked up the iMOCA handout that stated the following:
“The work of Kathryn Armstrong explores interdisciplinary methods of painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography as a fluid language of possibilities. Her site-responsive installations often point toward the overlooked as a location for intervention and chance encounters. Armstrong is interested in situating the viewer within a living work of art, somewhere between the familiar and the unfamiliar.”
The project narrative also stated that audience members are invited “to participate in an interactive sculpture that builds over time.” That is, patrons might add some personal trinkets to the exhibits if they so desired. I didn’t have anything in particular to add to the plethora of found objects on the shelves save for a couple of old Marsh receipts in my pocket that didn’t quite fit the bill, as it were.
I also read a the printout of an essay by Paula Katz about Armstrong's exhibition in June of last year in a Philadelphia gallery. The exhibition was entitled "Traveler, Not Tourist." It was dense academic reading, but it gave me a sense of Armstrong as a visual artist and Katz's genuine appreciation of her.
My next task was to find something to occupy Naomi’s time because I knew if she wasn't happy, I wouldn’t be happy either. Fortunately, I found just the ticket in exhibit no. 6, entitled “Leave a Note,” and situated on a shelf housing numerous found objects. There was a notepad with individual sheets printed with the logo “Worth Remembering,” and pencils for participants to draw what they found worth remembering. I gave a sheet of paper and one of the pencils provided to Naomi and told her to start drawing. (She didn’t really have to be told since she likes drawing very much.)
Pleased that my daughter was occupied, I walked over to exhibit no. 4, an abstract mixed media painting entitled “The Future. The black and gold work has weird bulging textures that might, for all I know, be visual clues.
There are certain things in the future that you can’t avoid, like death and taxes. And then there are things that look increasingly certain to cause massive changes within our lifetimes and/or those of our children like, say, global warming. But the exact way that these things will affect us individually is a big question mark. This opaque work of Armstrong’s, with its bold title, certainly wasn’t giving anything away. But the future is inherently unclear: that, I suspect, is the point of the work.
Not everybody has license to be vague on the subject of the future. You may have noted that Republican candidates for President Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are invested, as it were, in an economically robust future where environmental considerations are not an obstacle. That is to say, they are climate change deniers. Having such unshakable faith is essential if you are a CEO selling the investors in your corporation on how many widgets you plan to manufacture five years out. But such blind faith has its dangers. Say that you’re a government planner trying to come up with a contingency plan for coastal city flooding in the case of collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Good luck trying to obtain funding for such planning from the likes of Cruz and Rubio (or for that matter, from the state government of Florida which ban state employees from using the term “climate change” in official correspondence).
But I digress.
I looked down to see the work of my daughter who was tagging along by my side, using my notebook as her clipboard. She had drawn a dinosaur looking up out of a window. She had drawn three stars and a crescent moon — one celestial object in each quadrant of the window. I told Naomi to leave the drawing on the shelf and she did, as she was not particularly attached to it.
At about that time, we heard a crack of lightning. “Daddy,” Naomi said. “Let’s go look at the thunderstorm.”
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
So we stepped out of the exhibition space.
The Alexander at CityWay looks out on the massive corporate center for Eli Lilly, the drug company, lest we forget, that unleashed Prozac into the world. Lilly successfully lobbied the city of Indianapolis to finance the building of CityWay — which consists of a mixed use neighborhood encompassing the Alexander Hotel that houses iMOCA. The powers that be at Lilly argued that the development would help the corporation recruit and retain workers.
As a giant black cloud made its way west to east over the head of the corporate center and lightning flashed, I figured that this was a particular set of connections worth remembering.
It was while Naomi and I were looking out the window that the artist herself, Kathryn Armstrong, who currently teaches at the Herron School of Art and Design, came up to greet us. After some small talk, we got to talking about her exhibition —and the panes of glass in front of us.
“The windows are really important in terms of the reflection,” she said. “It’s something that transforms; it’s always changing how what’s happening actively within the space and what’s happening around us. There’s some really great things about the Alexander CityWay and the new development and these things that are reflected through all of these layers. If you imagine, when you’re taking a photograph, everything gets flattened.”
Armstrong showed us what she meant by referring to exhibit no. 2 along the back wall entitled “I’ll be Your Mirror,” after one of my favorite Velvet Underground songs. This exhibit consisted of bits of metallic foil tacked to the wall.
“If you stand in front of the window, you’ll see where these layers come together. And you see how these dots start to mimic that in the tree the light,” she said.
Indeed, when I looked I could see the iMOCA gallery lights reflected by the bits of foil on the glass. The shards of light roughly corresponded to the branches of a young sapling along the sidewalk outside. Armstrong had arranged the foil to reflect on the window just so.
“So if I were to take a photograph of everything that would flatten everything back to the view of the window,” Armstrong said.
And I was then able to appreciate what Armstrong was trying to do. She wanted her audience to grasp that when they walked into this space, they were walking into a work of art. There was something to be said about CityWay as an architectural gem, as Armstrong had noted. She was using this architecture as her canvas to make her audience see the space around them in new ways, "between the familiar and the unfamiliar," according to her project narrative. Perhaps what she was doing was akin to what Christopher Nolan was doing in his most recent films, Inception and Interstellar, attempting to break new conceptual ground in familiar genres.
I let it be known to Armstrong that Naomi had left a note for her exhibition. So we walked over to the shelf where my daughter had left her note. Armstrong seemed amazed that Naomi had drawn a window with her dinosaur. I was amazed too. It seemed that she had intuitively understood the whole point of the exhibition: her idea of being situated within a living work of art, the significance imbued in personal effects, the idea of exchange, what is worth remembering, etc…
When I quizzed Naomi on the drive back home, however, asking her why she had drawn the window she told me this:
“Daddy, I drew the dinosaur with its head looking up. He needed a window to look out of.”