On a recent trip to a Philadelphia art gallery, my husband and I stopped to admire a massive canvas checkered with silver and lavender while a gallery attendant lurked in the background.
"How much does this one cost?" my husband asked her.
She looked us over. "A lot," she sniffed.
We were on our best Art Gallery Behavior, too "“ approaching the canvases with our hands locked behind our backs, just like our college painting professor had taught us on a long-ago field trip to the Met, so that museum employees would know that we intended to look at the work without touching it.
But in a zany Philadelphia Fringe exhibition, Homeskooled Gallery worked to remedy the rigid mores of attending most art galleries. At the group's recent "Art Anti-Gallery," a greeter encouraged visitors to don any one of a rack of bizarre garments, from clownish polka dots and sequins to a golden-brown velour bathrobe, all exuding the musty aroma of Grandma's attic.
Make your own rules
A single-page handout, along with a giant handwritten sign on the wall, enumerated the rules, including "Touch everything," "Collaborate" and "Festoon."
In the spirit of participation, visitors were allowed to write their own rules on the large sign.
"Please spell accurately," someone wrote. "No flatulence," suggested another.
At the entrance, Sam Cusumano's Electricity for Progress greeted visitors with a range of noise-making "anthropomorphic machines," from a Barbie Karaoke Machine to an Atari console to a plastic Yodeling Pickle, all bursting with various after-market buttons and knobs, and each connected to its own amp.
By pressing the buttons and twisting the knobs, visitors could coax a universe of unexpected sounds from the objects. The sounds of an Atari joystick left me with an overwhelming urge to coax out a Beastie Boys tune, and as I turned the knob of the Yodeling Pickle, the sounds ranged from that of mice performing opera to a noise that suggested blatant violation of one of the visitor-authored rules above.
Temptation of giant phalluses
I moved on to Framed Frankenstein's [sic]"“ a corner occupied by large empty frames on the wall and a table loaded with art postcards, scissors, pens and glue-sticks. "Use art material to fill our frames with your art!" the instructions urged.
It must be owned that many people took the opportunity to cut and paste giant phalluses. But other compositions also emerged: a Mexican 18th-Century Jesus had been pasted into the midst of 17th-Century India's Krishna Sports with the Cowherdesses. Botticelli's Venus rose out of Monet's pond, and UFO's dotted Van Gogh's Starry Night.
A roving performer who introduced himself as Miss Guided interrupted my deliberations.
"The problem with the Met," she announced, "is that when you get too close to the art, an alarm goes off. Art shouldn't be stagnant and stuck on a wall!"
"But shouldn't artists have the right to present their work as they want to, unchanged by the viewer?" I asked. "Theater audiences wouldn't jump up onstage to contradict the director's choices."
"Neither way is right and neither way is wrong," Miss Guided conceded. "But here, you yourself are the artist, along with everyone else."
An appropriate philosophy for a gallery where, I noticed, someone had given Girl With a Pearl Earring a third eye.
Welcome to "˜Nudopolis'
Among the other offerings, the gallery included All Greeced up, which invited participants to enter a "Nudopolis" booth, shed their clothes, don a prop, and strike a living pose in one of several suggested genres, including Pensive (Rodin's The Thinker), Sexxxy (Rodin's The Kiss), Partay (Michelangelo's Bacchus) or The Feminine Mystique (Hiram Powers's Greek Slave). As the actress struck a pose reminiscent of Apoxyomenes (Sporty), someone handed her a stuffed pheasant.
Nearby, a sculpture in kids' clay titled Malleable Humanoids (a pale, skeletal spaghetti-figure that smelled like flea dip) attracted a steady stream of workers who kneaded on their own colorful clay additions.
As I departed, I noted newly added rules: "No being passive aggressive" and "You're not the boss of me."
Lifting my words
Outside, an eager artist explained the making of her Malleable Humanoids. "But shouldn't you also give some credit to everyone else who's been adding to it?" I asked.
"Well, yes," she allowed. "But it was our concept."
"What did you think of the gallery?" she asked me.
I paused to consider. "It was a sensory assault, but very inviting," I replied. As I uttered the words, they sounded good to me and I decided I would put them into this review.
"Oh my gosh," she said. "That's just what we were going for. Can you write that down for me?"
I demurred. Weren't those my words? I was planning to pour them into my keyboard at home and publish them under my name at my own leisure. But she insisted.
So I wrote the phrase down in my notebook, tore the page out, and handed it to her. As she disappeared back inside, it was obvious that the Art Anti-Gallery hadn't answered its own most basic questions, for both the artists and the viewers: Whom does art belong to"” be it writing, sculpture, sound, or paintings"” and how should we interact with it?
But as I released "my" words back into the gallery, where a happy ticket-buyer pressed a garish red "I Love You Mom" tattoo onto an artist's sculpture, I was glad not to know the answer. Homeskooled Gallery had just given me the most fun I'd had during the whole of the Fringe Festival.♦
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