Saturday, November 22, 2008

Report from Providence 1

Preamble (not a disclaimer):
The following posts are a long time coming and I won't offer up excuses but I will mention the 35 students, the projects, interviews, meals, dishes, emails, deadlines, bus and bike rides, sudden surprises, and expected drags that have happened since November 8th when I got back from Rhode Island. None of these things are terrible, not one bit, they just are. Sometimes I get my wits about me, figure out a good strategy for getting all my ducks in order, and usually this means that I need to put my actual self a couple of weeks in front of my virtual self.

I went to Providence, RI to help install Liz King's exhibit The Sizes of Things in the Mind's Eye. We installed her retrospective at Brown University's Bell Gallery. The gallery is housed in the Philip Johnson designed List Art Center right on "The Hill", the picturesque portion of Providence occupied by both Brown and RISD.

I loved Providence-- although I didn't see much of it as we worked over 100 hours in 7 days-- but mine and Shawn's walk to the house where we stayed on Williams street was nice. The city is full of classic New England wood framed houses (many of them Second Empire), with a number of converted light industrial brick buildings. Providence is home to the First Baptist Church in America- literally the first in the colonies, founded in 1638. Like the other NE towns and cities I've visited, there is a different type of historical observance in Providence than the kind we know in in places like DC or Richmond. No doubt the New Yankee Workshop guy was just around the corner (any corner) in Providence.

Liz's show in Nebraska this past summer was also installed in a Philip Johnson designed building (the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln). I thought the differences between the two building were really striking. One, the exterior of The List was energizing-- the story I heard was that Brown ran out of money during the project and decided not to sheath the building in the marble panels that Johnson had specified (the Sheldon is faced in a mausoleum-like marble). The story goes that Brown decided to leave the building as it was at the point the funds dried up-- a tall and thin cast concrete mass- that makes plain its being made of a series of blocks. Each of the blocks is marked by either one or two holes (ostensibly) intended to be used for adhering the marble onto the structure. Who knows if any of this is true (I've never claimed to be a journalist) but the building is like a big sheet of uncut shortbread. I say this in the nicest of ways.

The building also really benefits from being snuggled by the classic buildings of both Brown and RISD, and seems to have been slid into the space between an old library and (what I remember to have been) a Victorian era Colonial style administrative building. From the little I saw of Providence, this is the only building of its kind. It is also the rare building that has eyelashes. My sources intuited (as did I) that the skin-tag, eye-flap, blinders at the top of the building served the purpose of blocking some of the direct sun that would have entered the top floors. I'm really not sure about this but it sounds good. I unfortunately didn't get a picture of the great porch (porch is too domestic a descriptor, but it was much more than a balcony) on the second floor. Unlike the Sheldon, the front yard of the List was a small grove of trees-- some elms, some ginkgoes, a tulip poplar or two-- and the porch was nestled in the boughs of these trees.

The lobby was also good- again because of the trees (the huge windows don't hurt). The Sheldon also had huge windows- in fact they were much larger, and there were two sets of them, but they looked too far out towards the UNL campus instead of onto (or into) a copse of trees as Johnson so often intended.

So that's the exterior, the lobby and the second floor porch. What about the rest? The Bell Gallery space is fine-- it's all it needs to be- a huge box w/ no windows. Perfect for transforming a space to fit Liz's work. The rest of the building, except the balconies on the topmost floor which overlooked the city, was pretty damn crappy. The basement was the only floor that had both a women's and men's restroom.

Enough said.

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