Sometime in 2012, I started attending art museums and galleries because I wanted to include different modalities beyond those of literature and words. This was spurred by my interest in writers that were challenging or playing with traditional narrative and poetic form in ways that seemed architectural or painterly in scope. They treated the text as objects to be stacked and arranged, and were often accused of being haphazard and without purpose. But with some patience and a closer read of their work, their intentions could be arrived at.
In January 2013, I visited the “Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou in Paris” exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). It featured 75 women artists from 1907 to 2007, only two of which I knew the names of: Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman. Around that time, I was still entering museums like a tourist – hastily, and impatient. I was looking, but I was not seeing.
In the exhibit I tried to feel something other than my vague appreciation, or the desire of wanting to be a person that gets it (“It” being Art), and trying especially to ignore the self-conscious acknowledgement that cultured and smart people do get it, or they at least go to a museum and pretend they do – was that what I was doing? It was probably, a little bit. We’re never free from our egos unless we become the Buddha, and unless I’ve missed my calling, I am not the Buddha.
Despite my walking around and looking, I had felt nothing but the limitations of my trying. That is, until I was stopped by a canvas the length and height of a wall, painted in a grayish off-white. I stood back from it and tilted my head and thought, “Now what is the point of that?” I took a few steps back, and cocked my head to my other shoulder. I stared at it, until my vision got blurry, to see if I could find the optical illusion. But nothing. I took a few steps closer. I looked again, this time into it, and as if my eyes were adjusting to the dark, I began to see hints of dark and light grays and blues that fluctuated and bent the white. When I finally made it close enough to see the nameplate it read “Geneviève Asse, Triptyque Lumière (Illuminated Triptych) 1970-1971.”
SAM has a cell phone tour that you can access whenever a piece sparks your interest. I dialed in and typed in the code associated with the painting. A voice came through and explained that Asse painted the gray she saw in the city of Belgium. She wanted to capture how the rain, the clouds, and the diffuse light permeated everything in the city.
Growing up in the rainy Pacific Northwest, Triptyque Lumière felt familiar. I have gone through season after season when everything becomes washed in tones of muted grays. When the light becomes less, and my circadian rhythms work against my better senses, and the core of myself begins to develop a dull bruising.
Geneviève Asse is 90 years old and lives in France. Born in 1923, she was an ambulance woman in the 1st armored division in World War II, and belonged to a generation of artists that emerged after the war. In an article titled “Who is Geneviève Asse?” on Hyperallergic Weekend, writer John Yau says this, “considering the motifs — door, window, corner of a room, ocean and sky — to which she has returned throughout her life, it becomes abundantly clear that Asse’s work arises out of a deep necessity, an urgent longing for solace as she sees and feels her way from the materiality of paint to the immateriality of light and its withdrawal. She seems intent on registering her disappearance from the world, on repeatedly exploring states of annulment.”
How did I know to be drawn to a thing that was created by a speaker of another language, of another generation, of another nationality? Despite our differences, we are human in our basest of experiences, including those of us that live in cities and towns where the clouds darken the days quicker, and where the precipitation is a cause to disappear from the dampness of the world, drawing all of us inward.
Jenny M. Chu
*Note: none of the photos above are the Triptyque Lumière. Photos from top to bottom: a janxy-pic of Geneviève Asse, Rouge Gris (2009), Transparence (1980), Ouverture de la Nuit (1973)