Touched At The Wall: ArtLens Revisited

The interactive ArtLens Gallery at the Cleveland Museum of Art

There are a few things I miss about living in Cleveland, proximity to my son Noah being #1, but if you pressed me about naming a specific public space I’ve pined for most since departing for Knoxville last year it would have to be the Cleveland Museum of Art. I took serious advantage of its availability through the 15 years I could—immersing, conversing, and traversing the galleries, plundering wonder, working remotely in the Atrium, enjoying cheeseburgers and cookies in the café. My sturdy CMA executive pen sits next to me as I write.

So many singular moments like watching Noah wade through the purple balloons in the Glass Box exhibit Work No. 965: Half the air in a given space in 2012, screening my film Hidden in Plain Sight there on International Community Day in 2015, Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors creative volcano of a show  in 2018, and last year’s Firelei Baez installation the vast ocean of possibilities.  And I can still hear echoes from the unforgettable Forty-Part Motet sound installation from 10 years ago in the Reid Gallery.

When you add stuff like this on top of the permanent collection you have a glory-bound runaway train of meaning and magic right there at 11150 East Blvd. No surprise I headed there when I came for a visit to town a couple of weeks ago.

My plan was to breath in my touchstones and then just investigate at the speed of wander. First was the Reid Gallery, or the land of the overwrought religiously preoccupied drama canvases, to see Caravaggio crucify St. Andrew and Batoni’s jibe at Simon the sorcerer. Then I would say hi to the Warhols and the Impressionists, see what was in the Glass Box, swing by some classic sculpture and maybe finish with the photography gallery.

Along the way I was surprised by an untitled, recently acquired Beauford Delaney oil painting. It was a joyful noise of yellow and blue, energetic without being a riot. It caught my eye especially because he was born in my new hometown of Knoxville, and the Knoxville Museum of Art has some great pieces of his.  

Ready to head out, I took a last second detour into ArtLens Gallery and I don’t know why. It never has been a go-to favorite. I’ve always found the various little activity stations as trying too hard in some way, too encouraging somehow—Yay!! Art-play!! Sure, I’ve gotten a kick out of the sheer audacity of the ArtLens Wall component and being able to swipe through images of CMA’s artwork, but I always think, why not just get going to the galleries?!

ArtLens Gallery is an interactive way to explore the collection, including works not currently on view, such as this untitled work by the late Cleveland artist Sott Miller.

Just to set the stage if you haven’t seen it: the ArtLens Wall is 5 X 40 foot interactive touchscreen that displays between 4,200—4,500 works of art from the permanent collection. The CMA website tells me that it is composed of 150 Christie MicroTiles and displays more than 23 million pixels, equivalent to more than 23 720p HDTVs, and is the largest such screen in the United States.

But a funny thing happened this time when I got to the 40 foot ArtLens Wall and started my tactile interaction: more was revealed.

The revelation was delivered by the fact that the system allows as many as 20 people to interact with the wall simultaneously by opening their own separate interfaces. That rang my bell for real, and it was via the community of grubby wall grabbers that I took part in that I realized something. All of us—you, me, Aunt Sue, Kevin from across the way, Wanda from the other day, the mother-in-law who came to stay, and the creepy plaid-shirted guy matter to the history of Art as we stand there at the wall together, swiping away.

We witness and respond, and therefore add to the idea (cliché or not) that art movements are ongoing conversations over time. That our fingerprint traces after we “favorite” the image of Monet’s Water Lilies or any other work is a voice heard and accounted for. That the truth is this pedestrian activity exists alongside the best art criticism and insight and dissolves the need to get all intellectual. It simply affirms.

I stood there in awe, feeling a little untethered. It was like a mild flashback from my ego-dissolving hallucinogenic drug use experiences of yesteryear, not altogether unpleasant, exactly, but a tad crispy for my current sober lifestyle. A full moment, and then I was back. There was the CMA volunteer saying something I couldn’t make out, there was someone else playing at art in the other room beyond the ArtLens Wall. All coalesced, even as the images flew by.

We get to come to the CMA and take it in however we choose, including the gallery with images of all the works in the galleries. The magnificence we witness cares not what we think or say. The key is that we participate and engage. In the touch we are touched, and in sharing responses to art we are elevated.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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