Please Don’t Call Me Ishmael
Or, How I Came to Encounter the Great White Fail Whale on a Voyage to the Wind-Swept Concrete Seas of Richmond, VA.
It began with a telephone call to my replacement. He was late into his second week of day-long huddles in a tiny room at Moloch’s in-name-only tower in downtown New Orleans, and LT–he goes by LT, and is every bit a small-town boy from a little place just outside Richmond–was catching on quick and enjoying himself thoroughly. Having found a good thing on his first night out to dinner, I believe he has now his own waiter at the Palace Cafe and a cocktail waiting for him by the time he is seated.. His wife called on Thursday of that second week and informed him that he would have sole custody of his two young sons for the coming weekend, because she was running away with her girlfriends to places unspecified. Perhaps an island in the tropical reaches of the vast Southern Ocean. Or Ocean City, which is for some people the next best thing.
It was clearly my turn to go to Richmond. And I had an ulterior motive. On returning from my last trip to Richmond I arrived too early at the airport and found myself first in the gift shop, and ultimately in Applebees. You might not be sure which is worse, killing time in an airport gift shop or eating a blackened chicken salad at Applebees (which was more than tolerable), but in truth I left the gift shop with an illustrated Poe for my son and a tin of Absinthe-flavored mints but not with a tee-shirt I had hesitated over for half an hour. In the long run, my salad and rum-and-tonic with a Vicodin (I was just over some surgery) turned out to be the better half of the deal, for I ended up not purchasing the shirt and regretting that decision almost from the moment they closed the cabin doors.
I didn’t purchase the shirt, placed in the gift shop by the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, because I did not much care for the quote on the back (I have nothing against Rilke, mind you) but it seemed completely unrelated to the art on the front. Ah, but the art on the front. It haunted me the entire flight back, spoiling my Vicodin happiness at ending a week of business travel and returning home.
The front piece was a screen reproduction of artist iona rozeal brown’s “a3 blackface #59″ (yes she writes her name in all lower case, and titles her paintings in the same manner). According to the small catalog book I purchased today, brown “unites[s] African-American and East Asian cultures. Her paintings resemble nineteenth century Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, but they present contemporary urban characters included by hip-hop.” I think they neglect to mention that there is a hint of manga and anime about the paintings as well.
This is the painting (or rather, tee-shirt) I fell in love with but failed to purchase on my last trip, reproduced as best I can from a small catalog book with my cell phone.
You can view and zoom into the VMFA’s web version here. Notice the legend at the bottom right of image on that web page for therein lies my tale.
I not only agreed to go to Richmond to spare LT’s another week of eating in New Orleans while his wife dished out the mac-and-cheese to the boys, I booked an early Sunday flight for the express purpose of arriving in time and going to the VMFA to sit before this picture for a long time, and collect not just a tee-shirt but any other image I could find: catalog, poster, post card, the whole lot.
I am very fond of Asian art and culture. I’m trying to time a trip to the Birmingham, Ala. Botanical Garden’s Japanese Garden just in time for the maples to turn. I found the juxtaposition of urban American characters in an Asian setting compelling. The fact that one of the subjects was smoking a cigar added a bit. Last, I have begun to grow my hair out into a queue, and the image of the character having his hair braided drove home the last nail. My own is nothing quite like Queequeg’s or the painting’s subject, mind you, but I haven’t ruled out the idea of a few small skull beads of the sort Dr. John favors. (Blame Piano Dave for this last idea. I haven’t gotten that far yet, and I am pretty sure that a braid with skull beads would not go over well at Moloch World Headquarters. I catch enough so far good-natured ribbing for having my hair that long as it is).
I was, frankly, completely smitten by this picture on several levels.
So I arose at 0:my-god-fifteen this morning, a quarter hour ahead of my alarm clock and almost three hours prior to my 7:00 am flight via Philadelphia to Richmond. There were later flights available, the sort that would have been more direct and landed me around 5 p.m. local time, ideal for grabbing the car, getting to the hotel and walking across to the hundreds of beers, quite good food and satellite radio New Orleans music of the Capital Ale House. Instead I chose the 7:00 am because I was obsessed with this image, was determined if necessary to relocate one of the viewing benches and plop myself in front of it for a good hour, then run up as big a bill as necessary in the gift shop.
When I arrived there was a gentleman in a blazer who promptly asked if he could help direct me. I told him what I was looking for, but he was clearly just a docent and had no idea. He led me to the front desk, where everyone was busy ringing up tickets to the big Faberge exhibit but the young man on the end stationed at a computer volunteered to help me. It took him a while to find it, but finally he spun around his monitor and asked, this one?
Yes, I said. Where is that hanging?
He paused for a minute and then told me. It normally hangs in the 21st Century Art gallery on the second floor. However, that space had been cleared to make room for an installation titled Mocha Dick by artist Tristan Lowe. It is in fact a giant, near-life size whale made from industrial felt and an inflatable armature. A whirring fan of the sort that powers inflatable children’s amusements can be heard keeping the whole thing upright.
I engaged a half-dozen docents in conversation about my disappointment but they appeared to be mostly local college students working out their service requirements. The chances of running into a curator on a Sunday who would hear my tale and be struck by the industry and dedication of getting up at an ungodly hour just to see this one painting and who would take my privately into the back to view it were a hopeless fantasy.
All I could think of was: Fail Whale. My entire plan to book an early flight to spend some quality time ogling this gorgeous painting was spoiled by a Fail Whale. And not just any whale, but a white whale. A white whale great enough to fill the entire 21st Century Art gallery. (I have no idea where the artist gets the title, unless he meant the foam that sits atop his mocha latte).
I would gladly share my queen bed with a scarified stranger performing dark rituals before bedtime that set off the smoke detector for the chance to see the iona rozel brown painting, but instead I got what you see above, and a gorgeous but small (5×5) catalog of the modern art collection, which will end up permanently creased to page 100 on my bookshelf on a plate stand, to display the painting as best I can. because there is not a print, a poster or even a postcard. I’m glad I picked up the tee-shirt at the airport on my way in because they didn’t even have that at the gift shop.
Great White Fail Whale indeed.
I consoled myself with visiting the late 20th Century exhibit, spending entirely too much time in front of their sole Rothko, his rich blacks an antidote to my disappointment in white found where my painting should have been hanging. It’s not a bad collection for a mid-sized city, almost all of it donated by the Sidney and Frances Lewis Foundation. The one Warhol in the collection is based on the series Warhol did of a strip of portraits (Marilyn Monroe being perhaps the most famous example), but this one was from a set of camera booth photographs of Frances Lewis titled something like Sidney’s Harem. It is (thankfully) not in the catalog and I didn’t make a note of the title but I’m pretty sure that’s it.
Not an unpleasant way to spend an afternoon, but like the obsessive Ahab my own fixation was brought to an unhappy end by a great white whale. Nothing to be done, except to put on the tee-shirt and head over to the Capital Ale House to console myself with a few of their hundreds of beers, Belgian frittes and a black-bean burger (think a crab cake made from black beans). I contemplated a bit of absinthe after my visit to the mostly disappointing Edgar Allen Poe museum, but I think a tankard or three of ale is the right remedy for a long voyage come to a disappointing end.