Something strange was going on in the Lewis Gallery at the Portland Public Library.
I pass it on my way to Periodicals (to find the latest New Yorker stories and New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle) every week or two. It’s a new space, created during the year-long renovation that just completed last Fall; a single large room, more of a hall really, next to the stairs. The exhibit changes about once a season, and I typically spend a few minutes wandering each time I visit.
The first thing I noticed earlier this month were the chairs. It’s an art gallery, so I expected to see paintings on the walls – which there were – but there were unique chairs placed in front of each piece of art. Everything from random sticks tied together with twine, to an upholstered ottoman, to a sleek rocker, each one facing a painting, and each one with a small binder and a CD player on the seat. A woman sat in one of the chairs. I wasn’t sure, at first, whether she was a real woman or part of the exhibit. When she moved (aha! Real woman!) I thought it was nervy of her to sit in a chair on exhibit.
It was, I found, the idea. Sit in a chair by a Maine chairmaker, face an artwork by a Maine artist, and listen to a CD track of a Maine poet, singer, songwriter, musician, something, performing an audio piece inspired by the art.
What an incredibly cool idea! Or maybe I’m just naïve – art galleries aren’t really my thing, I wouldn’t know about this one if I didn’t visit the library so often. Maybe this kind of thing goes on all the time. Maybe I just need to get out more.
There are a few kinks in the system. I found it awkward to juggle the book (which contains bios of the artist and performer) and the cd player at the same time, even sitting down. And there’s no way to sit down without picking up both the book and the CD player, since there’s one of each on every chair. Then, to move to the next chair and the next piece of art, you have to move the book/player from that chair. And if you follow the CD tracks, you have to find the next painting – they aren’t lined up sequentially. Or you have to fast-forward and find the track you want, which isn’t that easy. For some reason, I’d assumed each CD player would have only one track, the one pertaining to the art, music/poem, and chair it was placed with. But I suppose that would’ve become confused, since people would move them. Frankly, I’m surprised they’re all still there. Either we have very well-behaved library patrons in Maine (unlikely from what I’ve seen in the computer and teen areas) or they’re electronically labelled and the alarms go off if someone tries to slip out with one.
But it’s quite an experience. Since I had other things to do and places to be, I only spent about 20 minutes today on 2 paintings and their associated chairs and sounds. As with all art, some appeals to me, and some doesn’t. I fiercely covet the Thomas Moser rocker, with the graceful lines and deep soft sheen. Today I couldn’t even sit in it – it’s just too beautiful.
I’m eager to go back when I can spend more time. There’s a wonderful primitive on wood, an abstract sculptural piece, a graphic design, a black and white by Robert Shetterly (I have his children’s book of portraits, biographies, and quotations, Americans Who Tell The Truth, bought at a Veterans for Peace concert a couple of years ago – he’s a special guy) – I don’t have much vocabulary for art. Fortunately, you can see most of it for yourself.
Next time, maybe I’ll even sit in that rocker.