I amble through the narrow hallway, my fingers lightly skimming the peeling cream-colored wallpaper. The smell of mothballs and paint fills my nostrils, and I deeply inhale the comforting scent. The museum closed hours ago, and I haven’t seen a visitor since dinnertime, leaving me the rest of the night to double-check the paintings. I’m technically supposed to be in and out of here, my only job description being to “ensure the safety and excellency of the museum’s paintings remain intact at the end of each workday.” But that sounds far too technical. It overlooks the depth of each piece because they normally have a different story to tell each night. Even though it’s my second month here, I feel as if I’ve only scratched the meaning of each work of art. Besides, it’s better than what lies in wait for me at home. I have barely anything in my fridge but condiments, nothing good is on TV but the same soap opera that one channel circulates every Friday night, and I can’t remember the last time I knew someone well enough I could ask them out to grab a meal.
A piece on the far right catches my eye first. It’s a delicate pointillism piece of a father and daughter in a book shop, an obscure ma-and-pa shop, from the look of it. I softly grin as I notice the little girl’s posture next to the bookshelves. She’s on the tip of her toes, as high as she can manage. And it’s then that she looks to her father with pleading eyes, probably asking for a book on a shelf too high for her to reach. The father is beaming in response, his hand already raised to the shelf she’s looking at. I shudder as goosebumps plant themselves on my arms. The familial warmth of the piece is overwhelmingly tangible. You can see it in their facial expressions and feel it in the color scheme of the painting. I crouch to look for the name of the painting on a plaque nearby and see “to do more than simply read literature. to love it.” I’ve always loved that title—the capitalization and style remind me of e.e. cumming’s poetry.
I shuffle to the next frame, a surprisingly ornate border for what seems like a mundane subject piece. The centerpiece of the painting is two adolescents sitting in chipped gray plastic chairs, with two or three rows behind them. They’re in a large building, with depressing beige coating the walls around them. Yet, despite the surroundings, the girls sit hunched next to each other, fascinated by an object they both share on their laps. I squint and realize they’re gazing at a thin journal. I never did notice the journal before, considering how the artist depicted their falling hair and their hovering posture. Again, I reference the title: “hostage—to be acknowledged over a small commonality.” This title by far confuses me the most. I suppose the commonality is the notebook, but I’ve never been sure how the word hostage plays into the meaning of the piece. Maybe I’ll understand it another night.
The next painting is well lit, probably more so than any other piece in the gallery. It’s titled “to realize the existence of a years-long companion.” The painting is smattered with dark royal and navy blues, exuding a dark, gravitational pull. A young woman sits in a blue chair at a mahogany desk that has a book on it. She bends the corner of the book with tense fingers, lifting the front cover just enough for surveyors to see the title of the book—the Odyssey. I wince as I recall my own reading experience of the Odyssey. Although I enjoyed the book overall, I remember many sleepless nights spent trying to understand the phrasing and plot line. In the painting, the girl’s other hand is in her mouth, teeth poised to bite off fingernails. Other chairs and people fill the space behind her, but those objects are blurred almost to absolute distortion. All you can see in the negative space of the painting are those dark, shadowy semblances of people near her as her eyebrows contort over her reading material. Shuddering at the palpable anxiety of the piece, I step away from the painting. It seems too private for anyone else to witness, almost to the extent I wish I could take down this painting from the gallery.
Growing tired, I decide to hasten my inspections. I’ve seen all these paintings before, and sometimes I forget how much they can shift my emotions. I speed walk through the rest of the hallways, mentally taking notes of all the usual paintings and their locations. The yellow hammock painting, the painting of a collection of decrepit pumpkins standing at the feet of a slow-dancing couple, the one of an abandoned park bench and one singular lamp post shining light upon it. And some of my favorites—the painting of a thin child bringing steaming food to two younger children hunched over homework; the one of a group of women surrounding an aged piano, mouths open with laughter and faces expressive with joy; and the piece of an aged married couple lying down in an empty parking lot, drooping willow leaves surrounding them. Some of the names of the paintings are better than the content of the works themselves.
“to be asked the entirety of the story,”
“to choose the wrong answer to prayer,” and
“to dread and to hope for the narrative.”
“to provide mundane love,”
“to serenade with jesus and judas,” and
“to pave the past.”
A recently installed plaque glimmers at the end of the hallway. We’ve had some comments from visitors that it’s strange to have the exposition plaque at the end of the displayed paintings rather than the front. It must be the artist’s personal decision or maybe the curator’s decision on where these sorts of items go. I always thought maybe it was installed that way to give our visitors a chance to formulate their own feelings and opinions about the pieces without having any external influence on that from the artist herself until the end. The bronze plaque lettering greets me as I walk up to it, and I read the paragraphs I nearly have memorized from how often I read them. The introductory snippet reads “an artistic survey on the nature of human ability, in both spectacular and miniscule ways, throughout the course of one’s life, showcased from the perspective of an anonymous poet.” The longer I work here, the more I wish the poet would’ve taken more credit for her work. I have questions I’ve wanted answered since my first day on the job that even the curator couldn’t answer. The museum simply had the pieces donated to them, and the museum loved the style and intrigue of the pieces in the donation. Regardless, she speaks through these paintings, and that’s enough for me most days.
Reaching the end of the exhibit, I check my phone. 8:52 p.m. Accepting the fact I have to go home at some point, I try to mentally make plans for the night. I could paint or maybe sculpt, extending my artistic explorations. Those wouldn’t be sad Friday night plans, I think. Who knows? I might have some captions myself to give to the stories I have to tell—perhaps “to expand the life given to life.”