Missing the Point

The day after Christmas, I sat in a dark room staring at 14 large canvases painted in deep purples and blacks, hung in an octagonal building known as the Rothko Chapel.

I grew aware of this chapel because of a poem by Jesse Bertron in Ruminate magazine titled “Outside the Rothko Chapel, Where Big John’s Eyes Appeared upon the Canvas on the Eastern Wall.” It was one of the best poems I read this year. The speaker talks about taking a group of young students to visit this interfaith sanctuary in Houston, Texas, which also serves as a public art installation and centre for human rights. He notes the kids’ boredom and reflects on the differences between a museum and a church, between watching and being watched. I had a long discussion with friends about whether the poem is cynical or hopeful, and I lean toward the latter. It ends with these lines:

I know now what they know, to know you’re being watched
will never satisfy.
Once you know somebody’s watching, how you long
for them to speak to you.

This poem was hovering in my mind as I sat on one of the austere wooden benches looking at the art, opposite other people doing the same thing.

The 14 paintings depart from Rothko’s earlier canvases featuring horizontal planes of colours with soft, blurry edges, such as this one I saw at the Seattle Art Museum.

Mark Rothko, #10, oil on canvas, 1952.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is considered an Abstract Expressionist painter whose objective, like other colour-field painters, was to show the human connection to the sublime, the primordial, the cosmic using large, meditative planes of colour. Yet Rothko rejected this label, as you’ll read below.

Talk about pressure to break down and cry! To not miss the point! On going to the Rothko Chapel, I wanted a spiritual revelation like many others have had viewing his work. These are the thoughts that flitted through my head instead:

This is much heavier than I expected. Thank God for the skylight. Wish I had come on a sunnier day.

Where do I look? There are so many canvases, which one do I choose?

How long are the attendants’ shifts? They must be super spiritual from being in this space for so long. I wish I could ask them what they see but is talking even allowed?

The kids in Bertron’s poem stayed for half an hour. I don’t think I can last that long and I’m an adult who works at a contemporary art gallery. What’s wrong with me?!

Should I sit on the bench looking towards the centre to see the whole room, or should I sit facing the outside and focus on one painting?

Is that the outline of eyes in the upper right corner of the canvas? Yes, I think I can see something there. Wait a minute, do I really see something or am I just pretending to see something?

Rothko Chapel, image from their website.

Apart from showing how expectations did not match reality, I write down these thoughts in hopes of breaking down the elitist mystique that often comes with viewing modern art. It’s easy to look at others in an art gallery and assume they “get” the work because they look really serious and are nodding intently, as if revelations are cascading over them like a baptism.

I thought that about other people in the Rothko Chapel, and maybe they thought that about me. The truth is, I found the experience quite self-conscious, concerned with having the right etiquette and seeing the right thing that’s supposed to appear to help me decode the paintings.

And I had to keep correcting myself: Maybe there’s not something to decode. Maybe this is my brain wanting to rationalize everything, to understand and move on, and maybe Rothko was trying to get people like me to sit in the discomfort of the dark and just be. And I was missing the point terribly but then I would just strive harder to get the point, which seemed counter-intuitive and so my thoughts kept spinning round and round until I felt dizzy.

I expected instant gratification, but like any spiritual practice (prayer, meditation, worship, etc), I get the sense the Rothko Chapel requires repeat visits. I talked to one local afterwards who said she keeps going back because the light is always different and can really make the canvases come alive.

I can’t help but wonder what kind of revelation Rothko had when painting these works in his New York studio. He never got to see them installed as he committed suicide after finishing them. They were his swan song.

Even with all my self-consciousness, there were some references that came to mind when viewing Rothko’s works as it’s natural to interpret things, to find meaning.

The two sets of triptychs, where the outside panels are hung at a different height from the centre panel, immediately reminded me of church altarpieces. The one at the front of the room, however, has three panels evenly hung, with the centre panel a lighter shade than the others. If there is a main work of the chapel, this felt like it. Knowing that Rothko was influenced by Christ’s Passion (and some interpret his 14 paintings as the Stations of the Cross), I pictured these panels as the crucifixion scene: Jesus in the centre, flanked by the two thieves.

Rothko Chapel, image from their website.

Opposite this work is a single canvas that also stands out because it has an obvious colour variation. The bottom quarter is painted darker with a frame running around the edge and proportions that evoke the painting of Christ’s death and entombment by Masaccio that I saw in Florence last year.

Back wall of Rothko Chapel (see painting between the two doors). Photo by Hickey-Robertson, courtesy of Rothko Chapel.
Masaccio, The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John, and Two Donors, fresco in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, ca. 1425.

Maybe these interpretations are all missing Rothko’s point but for someone who strives to do things right and meet other’s expectations, perhaps missing Rothko’s point is just as necessary to experience the work genuinely. That and going when the light is shining.

The Art of Healing

When you think of a hospital, what words come to mind? Sterile, white, empty, uncomfortable?

You probably don’t picture this.

IMG_4622 IMG_4587 San Francouver, Spring by Torrie Groening

This is the foyer area of Vancouver General Hospital that challenges the stereotype of hospital space. It also speaks to another place in everyday life where art is found outside of a gallery that I mentioned back here.

I was invited to attend a public tour VGH offers every Wednesday night, discussing select pieces from the 1200 works in their collection donated by artists, collectors, and even patients or their families.

The informative hour-long tour encompassed the aesthetic, practical, philosophical, and anecdotal. The tour addressed the purpose of art in a hospital space. It’s used as art therapy because art evokes reactions in people that can lead to emotional and even physical healing.

Late Vancouver artist Jack Shadbolt (who has a few pieces in the collection) says paintings are always in a state of tension and harmony, and every colour has to exist with another colour for the viewer to make sense of it. For example, blue tends to calm people while red agitates them. VGH even has an “Art Cart” program where patients in palliative care get to choose the art that hangs on the walls in their room. I think this is a great idea, and so does this blogger who shares about her experience as a volunteer on the unit.

“Your Arms Took Me In” by Bobbie Burgers

In addition to psychological responses, increasing studies show a link between art and neuroscience. Our tour guide quoted Nietzsche who said our muscles respond to music/art as well as our hearts. Perhaps this reference was no better demonstrated by her anecdote of how she observed the painting below pause a businessman who was briskly walking through the foyer while talking on his cell phone.

“Hill Fire” by Jack Shadbolt

Red is usually a faux pas in hospitals, not just because of its “anger” association, but because of its connection to blood. Even though Hill Fire has a lot of red in it, no patients have complained about it. Maybe because there’s something deeper going on that connects with people. Can you spot a yellow and purple caterpillar in the far left panel near the top? By the final panel, the caterpillar has morphed into a butterfly, signifying transformation, change, and hope. Hospitals are places where hope appears, even through fire. Apparently this butterfly is a repeating occurrence in Shadbolt’s works, kind of like searching for Where’s Waldo.

“Triptych” by Mary Louise Filer

The triptych-style Hill Fire plays off another work in the collection called Triptych. This installation features three glass mosaics balanced on crescent-shaped steel pieces. When the light shines through the hospital windows, the glass sparkles like stained-glass cathedral windows, showing the connection between art and the spiritual. Traditional triptychs are devotional paintings or carvings placed in church altarpieces such as the famous Ghent Altarpiece. According to the plaque, this work was inspired by emotional events in the artist’s life. Fragility and strength are both evident in its combination of transparent glass and solid metal.

“Triptych” by Mary Louise Filer

Shadbolt’s contemporary, Gordon Smith, also has paintings in the collection. The Byway Pond changes from a more representational image in the top part to an abstract rendering in the bottom half. In some ways, I feel it’s a pictorial representation of the depth Smith talks about when he says, “I am a hundred painters deep.” Each of us is influenced by what and who came before. We have many layers, only some of which are visible.

“The Byway Pond” by Gordon Smith

What I appreciate about VGH’s art initiative is that it helps create and unite a community of strangers all struggling with some kind of illness in the same space by offering them a shared atmosphere of potential hope and healing. I think there’s something to be said for the collective power of art. It’s not just background décor but an active participant in shaping the stories of the patients that come in and out of these doors. Yes, some will die but others will fly again, like Shadbolt’s butterfly emerging through the flames. Bent but not broken, damaged but not destroyed. The nature of life. Fragility and strength. Hurt and healing. Endings and beginnings.