It started the moment I walked through the gallery doors: the auras. At first, I started blinking, trying to erase the visual sensation like that which comes after having a photo taken with a bright flash. Grasping for an explanation, I wondered nonsensically if I had accidentally looked into the sun. Those who may find this description familiar will know why I felt a wave of dread accompanied by it. I was a walking timebomb for the brain-splitting pain of a migraine that would start in under an hour. Naturally, I made the poor decision to resolutely remain in the gallery until I couldn’t possibly any longer. I wanted to absorb all I could from the exhibition. However, I soon learned that viewing art through auras is an odd departure from the typical gallery experience.
The exhibition on view was Alice Neel’s Uptown. I couldn’t read the wall text properly due to the auras, so I entered the gallery without any preconception of the show. What struck me first was her combination of her expressionist style in her blatant brush strokes and primary color selections alongside depictions of everyday life and people, reminiscent of Social Realism, a movement which was prominent a couple decades prior to her earlier works. Expressionism was also out-of-date for over a decade at the time she was working as well. Her combination of the two inspirations created a whole new method all her own. The pieces feel honest in both their intimate, no-frills portrayals of her subjects, but also in the expressive, personal method of her paint application.
One of my favorite pieces from the exhibition is the portrait of Ron Kajiwara (1971). Her expressive brush strokes along with the strong blue, yellow, and brown of the subject’s clothing and scenery are reminiscent of a Van Gogh landscape such as Wheatfield with Crows (1890). The figure is posed casually, sitting with legs crossed, mouth slightly open, with and upturned hang resting, mid-gesture on his knee. It is as if Neel captured a moment of conversation, where the subject was nonchalantly explaining a point. Through my disorienting auras, it almost seemed as if his hand and mouth were moving ever so slightly. I had to perpetually refocus to confirm that the subject had not come as alive as Neel make her figures appear. Viewing these pieces through my fragmented, glimmering visions made viewing the art in a normal manner difficult. It was as if I was attempting to critically view a work of art while sitting behind a shattered windshield while the sun came streaming through. What’s more, is the movement of the auras. Slowly, they reflect light like glimmering water and gradually drift around my peripherals with a movement like clouds.
It wasn’t until I stopped trying to look past the auras and embraced seeing the art through this cracked glass-like filter that I realized I was actually having a unique experience. The floating visual manifestations collided onto the surface of Neel’s paintings though my eyes, disjointing the figures and disrupting the flow of her brush strokes. On some level, my disjointed vision actually complemented the pieces. Her expressive, wide strokes refracted at the disruptions in my sight, causing them to take on new shapes and lines diverting into different directions. It was as if my brain had decided that these portraits needed a more Picasso-esque factor to them.
I pondered if purposefully viewing this artwork hypothetically would win approval of Neel if she could know my experience with her work. On one hand, I like to think that maybe she would have found it interesting or inspiring, seeing her own work in this kaleidoscope-like fashion. On the other hand, perhaps it is somewhat defeating the intention of the pieces. They are exceptionally straightforward, communicating an honest portrayal of the subject’s character. Maybe my borderline visual-psychedelic lens was negating the intention of the artist. However, I found peace in considering that every individual has a unique lens when encountering art. Although mine was out of the ordinary and temporary, I still think it goes to say that any personal basis for viewing has a place when experiencing art.
When describing this encounter to a professor, he recommended, “Maybe don’t take so many magic mushrooms before going into an art gallery next time.” However, this was far from a pleasurable experience physically. I rushed to the retreat of home less than a half hour later, the disjointed color-rich images still lingering in my mind.
Image from David Zwirner Gallery