Takin’ this show on the road

[8/31/12] Keep your eyes peeled: I’m going to a museum, botanical garden, or some other kind of place with good things to look at today. I haven’t picked it out yet, obviously, but I’m in LA, so you know it’s going to be good. Stay tuned…

[9/5/12] Update:  I know what you’re thinking. I must have gone on one of the most epic journeys ever to have promised an update later the same day and only be delivering it several days later. I’m going to let you keep thinking that. And know that in the midst of the epicness, I did go to the Autry, a museum that showcases artifacts & culture from the American West. It’s across the street from the Los Angeles Zoo and within the grounds of Griffith Park, home of the famous observatory, hiking trails, and of course the Travel Town Museum. (I’ve never actually messed with Travel Town — even as a kid I was too cool for that — but others seem to have substantial nostalgia associated with it, so maybe there’s something to it.)

At the Autry, the first exhibit I went to was California’s Designing Women, a special display which showed a chronological progression of aesthetics spearheaded by various forward-thinking West Coast ladies. My favorites were Cher Pendarvis‘s surfboard — which was so sleek and looked so buoyant, I wanted to eat it — and the cool teapots, bowls and dishes by May and Vieve Hamilton.

I don’t think I know enough about design to really articulate what I liked about the Hamilton sisters’ designs. They just seem to satisfy an easily downplayed psychological urge to live a life of purposeful beauty.  The colors and the shapes that they chose, and the playful approach betrayed by the location and shapes of the handles and spouts on the teapots, invite a higher quality of home life. For me, there is always something meditative about an object that is not just begrudgingly utilitarian in its shape and materials. The time and attentiveness the artist puts into shaping clay or choosing a shade of paint leaves an impression more ephemeral than and yet equally powerful as the design itself. It’s not just the object; it’s the fact that someone out there cares enough to have made it beautiful.

Even before going to the Autry, I was recently already considering this idea. I was looking at my bedspread, a vaguely Near Eastern paisely design (that’s Persian, thankyouverymuch) that was made in Pakistan (or so the tag says). Setting aside the fact that it was probably factory-made, and even the fact that the design probably originated in an American focus group and not, you know, the mind of a Pakistani craftsman, I look at the distance this good has traveled, the cost at which I obtained it, and the historical significance of the pattern it wears — and I am amazed. It’s like a modern-day Silk Road: instead of paying in pounds of gold for bits of exotic coriander and silk, I drove five minutes to the Target in North Hollywood and paid something like $30 for it after picking it out on the Internet and using Target’s store locator to make sure they had it in stock. That’s all it took.

And the fact that the pattern was one that would even sell — that the aesthetics behind it appeal to Western sensibilities — is another parallel to the Silk Road, and perhaps actually a result of the cultural exchanges it represented. Anyway, I just think it’s a cool testament to how far we’ve come in terms of ease of trade and commerce and yet how we’ve remained the same in many ways.

Speaking of fascination with other cultures, the next exhibit I went to was Katsina in Hopi Life, where I met the art director for Native Peoples Magazine, who is himself Hopi. He told me the magazine covered the exhibit a while ago, but I couldn’t find the write-up on the site…just more reason for you to go check out the Autry, I guess! It actually reminded me of my time in college working on the preservation of the Lenape language(s). The Penn Museum has a permanent display of Lenape cultural artifacts (and modern creations) very similar to the Hopi exhibit at the Autry. Though I didn’t contribute to the curation of the Lenape exhibit, I’ve visited it many times, felt chills when reading the prophecy of the fourth crow, and worked closely with some of the people who did create the art in there…so it was pretty powerful to see the Hopi exhibit and suspect that much of the same love and sacrifice went into its creation.

My last stop at the Autry was morbidly fitting: the Colts, which they keep in the basement. So many guns! The exhibit talked about the crucial role the guns played in American history, but whoever wrote the descriptions was very, very careful to omit mention of who the guns’ targets often were: Native people and their food sources. Ah, so that’s what they meant by “win the West”…

I hated to leave the museum on such a sad note, but I figured it was better to be true to the fact that there wouldn’t be Californian women designers or vaguely apologistic Hopi exhibits if not for the Colt revolver. I was drawn in by how involved the art of killing each other has become. Matt Welch, editor at Reason, has said that any tech advancement you marvel at for its peaceful purposes will also be put to use for abhorrent purposes of force by the government. (He said it better, but you get the idea.) I think that’s true only because government is the ultimate organized embodiment of the human drive for force and violence. Don’t take this as a “Julie hates the 2nd Amendment” rant — I’m going to the NRA headquarters (for fun) later this month, for Pete’s sake. (Yes, I’m excited.) Obviously guns serve us for purposes outside of hunting one another. But I do wonder what the world would look like if people put half as much effort into truly understanding themselves as they do into chasing their perceived enemies.

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