Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ramble On

For an art geek, there's nothing quite like a curator's tour.

Which is why this art geek was at the VMFA for curator of modern and contemporary art John Ravenal's insight into the latest exhibition in the 21st century gallery, "Fusion."

It was kind of bittersweet, too, because he's leaving the VMFA next week to become director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Massachusetts. Our loss is their gain, but his presence will be sorely missed here after 16 years.

Leading us through the galleries showing off works he'd acquired by black artists as well as artists from Latin America, Mexico and the Caribbean, his delight in them was evident. Only a passionate curator can rave about the materiality of a painting or the apocalyptic nature of a landscape and make it sound so thrilling.

Several especially strong pieces I recognized from recent special exhibits, like Trenton Doyle Hancock's autobiographical "The Former and the Ladder or Ascension and a Cinchin'," with its winking references. Or Sonya Clark's "Black Hair Flag," which he called succinct and very loaded with the symbols she combines in it - the Confederate and U.S. flags and black hair braids.

What became clear as we moved through the galleries was how thoughtfully assembled the pieces in the exhibit were, sometimes because of a silent dialog between them and other times a reactionary one. He spoke about each piece as lovingly as a father, eventually admitting that he could no more choose a favorite. than a parent could a favorite child.

When he spoke about the challenges of attracting people to the contemporary gallery when they'd come for something more traditional, say Faberge eggs or Impressionism, he said he hoped that seeing something contemporary might speak to the visitor.

As someone who has no problem with art speaking to her, I still felt fortunate to have the talented Mr. Ravenal speaking for and about the art, sharing why it originally spoke to him and how it matters in the greater context.

At the start of the walk and talk, he'd preemptively apologized for his tendency to ramble. For this art lover, listening to a brilliant curator ramble about what he loves about a gallery full of art is almost as good as it gets.

Goodbye, Mr. Ravenal. You will be remembered for your unerring eye in leaving a legacy of contemporary art that matters. That, and being the best possible art tour guide.

Something to think about in case Massachusetts doesn't work out...

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