Until very recently the prospect of enjoying art was as frightening to me as going to the dentist. While I always enjoyed historical or natural science museums, corridors of paintings and sculptures invoked claustrophobia and headaches. My last real participation in an art class was during fifth grade when I suggested to our teacher that we do something to incorporate marketing which, upon reflection, seems to have been a front for showing my design of an orbiting burger joint heavily influenced by my undying adulation for Space Quest III. The only time I recall ever voluntarily going to an exhibit was at the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum and I was probably disappointed because most of Art Spiegelman‘s work doesn’t mirror Maus.
When I wasn’t paying attention parts of my brain matured. Several years ago in New York I faced my fears, spending several hours wandering the Metropolitan Museum completely enthralled; several hours later when we had to leave, I wasn’ t done. Sure, I may have been drawn more to the historical displays and the furniture than many of the paintings but I saw plenty of pieces which grabbed my attention.
Still, I never think of going to a museum on my own, or even when people are in town and expecting to be entertained. It’s so far removed from my world that making a day of art is beyond my comprehension. However I’ve watched people go through art school and I’ve seen the progress they’ve made and I’ve talked about things I didn’t ever expect to understand and learned to appreciate things I never expected to respect. And as San Francisco’s art-school reject population grows I’ve been invited to attend openings which, out of obligation, I try to avoid with really good excuses. But I’m not perfect.
Several weeks ago my downstairs neighbor surprised me with a flyer for his show at Adobe Books; I wasn’t even aware that he did anything other than surf. The opening began after I was off work and Adobe’s a quick walk from my house which made it an easy event to swing by and, as I was practicing my leaving the house skills at the time, the idea appealed to me. I wasn’t at all sure what the art would look like and I realized it really wouldn’t matter. The San Francisco art opening has never been about anything other than hanging out and drinking and trying to impress the people around you by acting like an idiot, dressing like an idiot or talking really loud about idiotic things. My knowledge of how it works made this a particularly challenging test.
The kids were spilled out onto the sidewalk when I approached, and I patiently waited for careless revelers to slowly extract their Tecates from the doorway so that I could enter. I immediately ran into someone I knew which was fortunate because all avenues of escape had been sealed off by the crushing crowd. We exchanged pleasantries while I watched for an opening to head towards the back where I expected art to be shown. The layout of the bookstore does not really accommodate many people and frankly I was wondering where the pieces would be hung because tall shelves overflowing with paperbacks lined the walls. My conversation began to get awkward because I was unable to move on. The heat of a hundred insipid conversations began to seep into my coat. I finally found an opening.
Directly into Orion, the reason for my being there. He had a glazed look of the overwhelmed new father or new husband, blankly shaking hands and murmuring thanks as if anything more demanding would shatter his bones. He thanked me for coming and shook my hand but I don’t imagine he remembers this now. I asked where the artwork was and he pointed me down some narrow aisle of shelving thick with kids all dressed the same drinking Tecate. I pressed on and ran into another person who I knew. He was playing in one of the two bands performing that night because the San Francisco art opening is not a party unless bands play. I said hello and wished him luck and pressed on but someone tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘hey’. Yet another person I knew. We weaved through the idling clusters of party people and found the backroom gallery.
Small doesn’t accurately describe the room but it’s the first word that comes to mind because understanding the true measurement requires a degree in molecular biology. There was a cell with white walls, bright lights and room for one person with their arms stretched out. There were close to ten people in the room with their arms tucked against their bodies peering at these little pieces on the walls. I tried to read an introductory note on the door frame leading in but there was a queue quickly forming behind me and, self-conscious about holding up the line, I stepped inside.
Orion’s pieces are very small paintings of book and magazine covers with very small text that require leaning forward and reading. I tried to lean forward to read some but I was behind a little old lady with a cane and perpetual smile that screamed, ‘I don’t know where I am but I’m so happy to be outside’. She leaned forward and looked at the very small paintings, smiling, nodding, even chuckling to herself. I was too uncomfortable to join her leaning in, invading her private space, so I waited until she had moved on before attempting to examine anything. Immediately behind me the impatient shuffling of others distracted me from my ability to comprehend what I was looking at. Concerned I was holding up the line I moved to the next painting only to find my geriatric companion was still face first in the frame. When she was done I had about thirty seconds to lean in, attempt to focus my eyes, then lean back out as the people behind me moved in. This is how I would my way through the little cell with white walls and bright lights.
By the time I was leaving I was frustrated beyond belief and insisted, now that no one was waiting for me to stop blocking everyone’s view, on reading the introductory note. I was immediately interrupted by a girl who knew my name. I said ‘hey’, and was pretty sure I knew her but was on the fence about which of the couple of people she could have been she actually was. I decided to leave it at ‘hi’ and a quick nod and bolted back into the main room of the bookstore.
The aisles were even thicker with idlers now, so I chose the only empty one which stranded me behind a drum set fenced in by the gay and lesbian section. At least I could see the band. While they ran through their set a couple friends found me hiding out and kept me company for a couple songs before splitting. After the band was done I said goodbye those who I knew and tried to leave but immediately ran into another person I knew. He wanted to drag all of his friends outside so we could hang out for a little while and chat but this seemed impossible considering the inertia one experiences in a group of people who’ve settled in to drink some beer at the bookstore. I stepped outside alone, wondering if I should wait or just head back home. Looking up I saw the girl who knew my name whose name I was pretty sure of but I could be confusing her with another girl I also barely know. I started walking home before we established eye contact.
I can think of five art shows I’ve been to in the past year and each of them have been overpopulated by people who never seem to notice there’s anything hanging on the walls. They like to gather in clusters right in front of artwork making it absolutely impossible to see anything and to loudly talk about things I can’t relate to while drinking plastic cups of wine and playing their part in the evening’s performance. Sometimes I find myself fortunate enough to be among people I know who at least afford me my own cluster of people to stand with, but all I’ve been able to determine from these experiences is that the opening night is the best time to let someone know you cared enough to come see what they’ve done and the worst time to actually see what they’ve done. Why does the world work that way?
Orion Shepherd’s solo show, “I Was A Green Beret” will be up until March 21st at Adobe Books. The band playing in picture two is Dimples and I’m sorry I couldn’t squeeze the sax player in that shot. The third picture was taken at 4 Roads, a group show featuring Dustin Olson who is my unincorporated alter-ego. The final picture is from the Introductions 2008 show at Root Division featuring Shayla Dopp. Notice how hard it would be to look at art in all of these places.