I drove, again, along the highway that sometimes feels like it mostly exists to serve paper mills to see the openings at the MacRostie Art Center.
The “Homeless is my address, not my name” exhibit was powerful. It included 50 portraits, half of which were accompanied by phone numbers enabling viewers to dial in using a cell phone to hear the subject’s story. (I will admit, my phone is fairly cheap and Grand Rapids is one of those places I feel lucky to get service on Virgin, so I’m not surprised that the audio on some was hard for me to make out.) The stories were almost painful, though — they made me wince not because they were traumatic and sad, but because the storytellers always managed to claim that, despite the clear victim narratives that were possible, instead, these were learning experiences, experiences that made them stronger, experiences that had to happen to help them become all they could be. I don’t know that I have that strength in me.
And I wonder whether I would have the strength to see my face sent around the state as a marker for helping people understand homelessness.
The photos slide between art and documentary, between capturing the unique power of the individual’s experience and the generalizable message: these folks are shaped by their time as homeless, but they are not defined by it.
The exhibit is hung in an innovative style. (I am more and more impressed by the curatorial power at work at the MacRostie, who seem committed to not just displaying art, but making it an experience.) Not a single piece was hung on the walls of the gallery. Instead, the images are suspended from stanchions, spaced about 3′ apart (less than the distance of an aisle in a grocery store or Target shop), at about eye level (I’m 5’6″). As a result, you don’t see these faces; you encounter them. If you are standing in front of the work, there is no “safe” distance from which to watch, impassively, or to pretend to be looking at something else — You must recognize them or consciously look away.
Which may be true of the general problem of homelessness.
(The last traveling exhibition I saw at the MacRostie ended up at the Zeitgeist two months later. Perhaps this exhibit may find a future in Duluth. If not, make the trip to Grand Rapids.)
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Also on exhibit, a watercolor show that offers a lot for the eyes. The Mac has been host to watercolor artists for years.
When artists work together to explore a medium as they do under the wing of the MacRostie, a lot more is possible than at least I had imagined — from color effects and texture and even a kind of sparkle, at the level of technique, to uses of watercolor in abstraction that danced before my eyes.
If you happen to get on a highway behind a paper truck, just follow it all the way to the mill and see this art.