Sometimes walking into and wandering through a museum, not really knowing what’s on view or really why you’re there other than it’s a museum, is one of the most pleasurable experiences that can happen to you – serendipity fashioned out of boredom, merging with a magic feeling, like getting lost and then finding out you were lost at all. That’s what happened to me at the New Orleans Museum of Art a couple weeks back. I went to the museum just to go there, as we were on a visit with friends in the Big Easy and we had some free time. I’d been to NOMA before, the last time in 2010, and back then the place didn’t seem that impressive. There was a little bit of a Miss Havisham quality to the whole thing, a grand mansion haunted by better days. Of course you can’t write about New Orleans without referencing Katrina, and maybe 2010, just five years after the horrors of the storm, was too early to get a strong impression even of the high-end culture of a city probably not as nightmarishly touched as other parts of it, but still walking into the 2015 NOMA was like walking into a gloriously reimagined kingdom. Miss Havisham just didn’t get a facelift; she got an attitude adjustment.
First off, I stumbled into a show featuring Robert Rauschenberg on the second floor, called “Robert Rauschenberg and the Five from Louisiana,” a re-investigation of an exhibit the museum presented in 1977, featuring superstar artists from the area. (Although born in Texas, Rauschenberg considered Louisiana his main home; it is as well the home-base for most of his family.) The curators have used the rerun of this show to display a new Rauschenberg acquisition, titled, “Melic Meeting (Spread),” a gorgeous concatenation from 1979 of solvent photo transfers, fabric collage, acrylic paint, mirrors, wood, and a blue comb, all arranged/merged/juxtaposed on wood panels that spread across the back wall of the gallery like a marquee turning into the movie itself. “Melic Meeting” is an open door onto a palace of very earthly, unerringly idiosyncratic and completely mundane delights: bland yet supernatural photos of a cat face, a thermostat, an awkward horse-back riding family gathering, a 1970 male model’s face, fragments of floral wallpaper cut Matisse-style into vibrantly awkward shapes and designs leading toward an arrow pointing toward a beautiful abyss.
“Melic Meeting” has an indoor/outdoor grandeur to it, to the point you can stand before it and worship the grandeur while also entering into its swirl of nostalgia and pop-song lament (“melic” actually references Greek poetry meant to be sung aloud), its seriousness masked as gimmick. You truly feel a philosophy bubbling through the piece, as if Rauschenberg himself is emerging from the bottom of the ocean to tell you everything is okay, just appreciate it – it’s all kind of stupid isn’t it? Stupid and beautiful. “Melic Meeting” is a sort of synecdoche for all of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre, the sum given to you as one pretty, mystical moment.
Rauschenberg in the piece uses simplicity to target complexity. The Pop-art, screen-print dazzle of nonsense and warm memory, the ghostly photos of nothing, the awkward yet completely solid infrastructure built to display it all, all of that pulls you into a vortex narrative that seems to glitter and purr with meaning that has lost the veneer of language – maybe even the need for it. Everything he does in this piece is a form of symbolism that flickers without source-code, just a gleaming set of emotions that can’t be located/felt anywhere else, any other way, like a Great American Novel “written” with throw-rugs, wallpaper samples, wind-blown summer curtains, and the sunlight hitting windshields on some anonymous Wednesday afternoon. A decorative impulse fuses with a phenomenological one.
That same impulse gets a Kanye-West treatment in the next piece I fell in love with at NOMA: Will Ryman’s “America,” a 2013 golden log cabin that inhabits its assigned space with the wholehearted cinematic silliness of the house that fell on top of the wicked witch in “Wizard of Oz.” In the wall-text, Ryman’s piece is given to us as a commentary of, (you guessed it, or maybe you just saw the title), AMERICA, but enjoying/interpreting Ryman’s artistry solely in that way is the easy and less satisfying way out. Ryman’s cabin is a big fat reference to Abe Lincoln’s childhood home, and its gold-resin shellacking of course is about an appropriation that is both a paean to capitalism and a weary satirization of it. Still, the piece itself, disconnected from its moorings, has a queenly, campy kink to it, a fusing of Marie Antoinette kitsch with Civil War kitsch, but somehow elevated above camp and kitsch by Ryman’s dedication to his own serious need to make it Liberace pretty. And when you walk up to it and see the cabin’s insides you just have to laugh at the mind-boggling amount of work it has taken to do the interior décor: gold-resin-coated shackles and chains, phone-parts, bullets from historic battle-sites, cotton, corn, etc. All those materials have been formed into a cross-section of heavenly, fussy, geometric set-pieces that reference everything from outsider-art environments to quilting-bees to the high-art mathematical abstractions of Leger and Albers. In short, Ryman’s installation has a glam-rock intensity that outshines its political message – it goes dreamy and epic, despite its commitment to point-blank protest.
Like Rauschenberg, Ryman is interested in finding what America means; unlike Rauschenberg, Ryman seems a little too anchored to a more literal-minded rulebook. Still both pieces have a kind of exhilarating sense of themselves as terribly serious and somehow totally joyous in their execution. You want to enter into both their worlds, kind of like the way I entered the New Orleans Museum of Art, expecting nothing and yet completely and gratefully surprised.