A number of artists presently exhibiting at PMA explore dark questions that many of us do not have the courage or ability to bring out onto our personal tables. Viewing this artwork can serve as a bridge towards understanding ourselves.
Personally, I’ve been seesawing between sticking my head out into unsafe places and hiding my head under a pillow. When I’m hiding my head, I get very uncomfortable. There is too much hiding going on in politics. To not speak up now is to join that crowd. I read in the paper the other morning that Sen. Tim Scott, one of our country’s two black Republican senators, is making a public stand, asking for more authenticity from his party when it comes to judicial nominees. Maybe it’s time for all of us to do likewise, poke our heads out there in the danger zone, and act like we care.
I tried this out last night when I was at the end of a long line of people waiting to get into one of SF’s Michelin one-star restaurants, in the Fillmore district. The area is peppered with homeless panhandlers who might or might not be sane. At the end of the block I had passed a man who, while standing, was bent over completely at his waist like a hairpin, wiggling about and jabbering at the world between his ankles. In the dark, down at the beginning of my line I could vaguely see another bent man, this one moving slowly toward me, rattling a few coins that he held out in a clear plastic cup. The people in the line ahead of me turned as one to give him their backs, the established norm of the visiting privileged who don’t want to think about poverty. As he got closer I could see the man was pushing a beat-up old walker, the kind with a storage seat. He was mindlessly repeating an automatic refrain: “Can you spare a little change? I have to eat, too.” No one turned towards him.
I was sitting on a cane chair myself, watching from the end of the line of standing people. My eye level was just below this panhandler’s. He now appeared to be an aged person, but I still had no idea if he was sane or not. I hadn’t yet decided to turn my back… should I? I noticed that while it was very dark on this street, the humanity directed towards this man was even darker. So dark it didn’t exist. I decided to confront my own darkness and face the mystery. Who was this man? I would see what I could see.
What followed is difficult to describe. He had stopped in front of me and had mindlessly begun his repeat chatter when it dawned on him that I was looking at him intently. It took about 5 seconds for the panhandler to come awake, to shift his eyes into real time, and to gaze at me with his own quiet curiosity. Then, without moving his body forward, he went on with his chatter. Only this time it wasn’t the repeat, repeat of his normal two lines. It was different. The words that came out were poetic and soft. They had music to them. It was almost as if he were revealing his inner mantra, the story of his existence, his personal philosophy on how he keeps going, and his sense of humor at watching himself doing what he was doing which he knew he’d be doing until “the good Lord takes me home.”
I kept my eyes on his, giving him full attention, wordless. As he talked, bent over but confident in his wisdom, I sensed others were turning to watch and to listen as well. A green bill went into his cup and he smiled up at the generous with the humble eyes of complete knowledge. “Thank you. You have fed me.” Then he turned toward the shadowy line of people that had gotten thicker, his eyes lightening even more. “There’s the future,” he nodded. We all turned around to see what he was looking at in the dark. The crowd quietly parted for us to reveal a young baby, bathed in light from a bakery window, chortling up at his parents.
It was then that the dinner line finally moved forward and the bent old man drifted off into the dark. My small party went into the restaurant last, but by some coincidence we don’t understand, we were seated at the best table in the house.
What does any of this have to do with the many artists presently showing in the Museum’s five galleries? It is simply that these are all very talented individuals who have chosen to look into the darkest parts of humanity (whether in themselves or in others) and bring forth to the viewer what they found there. The paintings and sculptures presented serve as safe pathways into dangerous territory. They enable the viewer to explore such difficult questions as social abnormalities, the aging process, drug addiction, cruelty, despair, political oppression, species extinction. Conversely, some of the pieces concentrate on hopeful methods for relieving such tensions, including the use of free will and making wise choices within this world’s disparate belief structures. Many of the individual artists have provided small essays to guide the viewer more fully into their projects.
Looking through the exhibitions, with the great variety of perspectives on difficult topics, can be daunting to the sensitive mind. But when we make the choice to look long and deeply enough there is an opening and we begin to see a universal something that connects the whole that is us, human beings, with the timelessness that is perpetual life on this planet. We get a profound sense of reality that speaks about what it is that is keeping us alive, kicking, and shining with our own personal grit.
Soul Scrolls: by Jerry Emanuel, through Jan. 6
Paintings by George Rivera, through Jan. 6
Sculpture Now: Works by Pacific Rim Sculptors, through Jan. 27.
Snaps: Paintings by William Rushton, through Jan. 27.
Banner image, top: George Rivera, “The Cost of Personal Freedoms” (detail)
First image: Leitha L. Thrall, “Toddlers Too Often Unintended Targets”
Second image: Paintings by George Rivera; Jeff Key’s Vessel #61 -- Heed”
Third image: Eileen Fitz-Faulkner, “Shift”
Bottom image: Natasha Dikareva, “One with the Source”
"PMA Heartbeat" contains the personal observations of the artist in Studio 26, and not necessarily those of PMA as a whole.