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Artful Dodging

or, How To Get Met Beyond the Met

by Scott Westerfeld

I hate art museums.

Don't get me wrong: art is good. But the art in museums is... Art. All those great and august works looming authoritatively from the walls makes me head straight for the museum cafe, the gift shop, the bathroom. There's something about acknowledged masterpieces and marble columns that demands I buy the smallest imaginable bottle of Perrier for $3.75, and drink it furtively. At least said bottle will be scaled for human beings, not Olympians. And -- to get to the point -- you can't really meet people in museums, where all possible conversations have a creepy sophomoric quality to them. "You like Van Gogh? I like Van Gogh too! Howza bout that Starry Night?" Or, "That David fellow looks bigger in person than he did in... my art history class."

Besides, we're at the museum to genuflect, not discuss. This is Art, after all.

So when I'm in a new town, I dutifully and humbly hit the Great Museums. But then I happily move on to the gallery scene. Galleries are small and intimate, the architectural equivalent to those little bottles of Perrier. They usually show only one artist's work at a time; a singular vision, as if you're visiting the inside of someone's head.

It Speaks to Me... Or Was That You?

Best of all, the art in galleries isn't ratcheted all the way up to "masterpiece." It usually hovers around, say, "debatable." Or sometimes "laughable." And I've discovered that as with movies, it's the bad art that makes for good discussions. All of which makes a small gallery the perfect place to start a conversation with a stranger. Heck, most contemporary art is just begging to be talked about.

Art gave up trying to be merely beautiful decades ago. It quit that job and got a better one: to provoke, to yank chain, to inveigle and befuddle. So get provoked. Then make contact with some other gallery-goer's rolling eyes and say what you think. Which is... what?

Well, don't feel like you've got anything to prove when talking about art. It's not only for experts and rich collectors with accents. Just think of it as an ancient and weird conversation that started when somebody scratched a cave wall and said, "Hey! My scratches are cool!" And the scratches got cooler and cooler, and the ways of talking about the scratches got cleverer. But anyone can join.

There are, however, a few things you probably shouldn't say. A short list:

"I could have done that."
Maybe you could have done it, but you didn't.

"What's the artist trying to say?"
Who cares what the artist is trying to say? What are you trying to say?

"This is a fine example of late didactic whateverism."
There's no such thing as late didactic whateverism.

Just let the artist's work poke at those free-associating parts of your brain, and see what comes out of your mouth. Modern art is sort of like those Rorschach blots that psychiatrists use; sometimes a lot like them. Say the first thing that comes into your mind. You can't go too wrong.

"You Put the 'Cute' in Haute-Couture"

Still nervous? Try the patented conversation starters below, based on a couple of shows from New York City's Chelsea galleries. For those of you not based in the Big Apple, virtual versions of both shows are only a click away. Think of it as a driver's ed simulator for gallery goers. Don't worry, you can't really crash and burn.

With Breakup Girl-appropriate themes of love and lust, both shows are in the same building, which is probably the best cruise in the New York gallery scene. It's 529 W. 20, between 10th and 11th Ave. There are 11 floors, with two to four smallish galleries on each. Take the elevator to the top and the stairs down, and you can hit them all in a couple of hours.

On the sixth floor in Stephanie Martz Gallery, check out Gina Manola's "Springfield Crush." This wonderfully obsessed artist documents a crush she suffered at the tender age of fifteen. There are music videos starring the lip-syncing artist herself, a commissioned romance novel, and a mattress in the shape of Illinois (oh, that Springfield). Manola even rented a billboard in the project's namesake city to announce the crush (finally, after all these years). Get to the gallery on Saturdays from 1-3 p.m. and you'll find Manola in the kissing booth, selling kisses.

Something clever to say: "Manola's work is like some lovestruck kid's personal home page." "It's a gallery show pretending to be a Web site!" (Or, in the case of the online version, "Hey, it's a Web site pretending to be a gallery show.")

In Cristinerose Gallery on the second floor, beware of Michelle Handelman's "Cannibal Garden." Handelman puts the pretty back in pretty scary. At the show's center are nine radiant, digitally manipulated photographs of feathers. Are they genetically enhanced plants? Flowery sex toys? Do they bite? Handelman apparently does. Among all the pretty pictures several videos show the artist nibbling tiny jewels, regurgitating false eyelashes, and licking her lips. Bring candy.

Something clever to say: "Everything in the show shines with those lollipop colors that iMacs come in." "Cute and sexy technology... but with a chewy center."

Now you're ready to go out into the real art world. Sure, not everything you see in your local galleries is going to be a work of genius, like in those marble mausoleums stuffed with masterpieces. But look at it this way: if there's something really hideous on the wall, you'll look better in comparison.

Which is, after all, an art in itself.

Scott Westerfeld is the author of Polymorph and Fine Prey. His third novel, Evolution's Darling, will be published by Four Walls Eight Windows in the spring of 2000. Last time he visited, he told us all about Deep Ellum.

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