In the special exhibition, HolyH20:Fluid Universe, dedicated to water in its many mysterious forms and influences on art, specifically that of the folk and outsider variety, I was deeply intrigued by the sections: Fanta≈Sea, Water as a Door to Initiation and the Spirit World, La Siren, The Sacred Flags of Haiti, Troubled Water, Voice of Water, Water Like Stone, Afloat, Coney Island.
The "Coney Island" room was the perfect place to begin my exploration, as I was enthralled by a large piece by artist Tom Duncan that beckoned viewers to illuminate its fantastic, highly detailed boardwalk scene by pushing various buttons to animate specific vignettes. I took a closer look and became certain of its authenticity as artistic commentary when I saw that unmistakable New York classic hanging out under the boardwalk: a huge (rubber) cockroach.
"La Siren" was the part of the show that really spoke to my heart, in particular the diorama of a bejeweled mermaid-woman rising out of the sea, with "Syrena Rene de L'eau" spelled out in a dazzling rhinestone script at her feet. "The Sacred Flags of Haiti" continued the religious symbolism that permeated nearly every piece in the show, from the sequined tapestry embellished with a vividly animated snake charmer mermaid by Nancy Josephson and Roland Rockville to a dozen other permutations of mermaids or sirens engaged in mythical and heroic acts (pictured here, La Siren Shrine by Nancy Josephson).
As a later part of the exhibition noted, "Water is the source of life as well as its sustainer. The salt content salinity of our blood like that of whales, mice, and most fish is .16." The theme of water being spiritual, natural, and intrinsically connected to human life is continued in the same text: "Words of the Icelandic poet Sjon Sigurdsson, made popular in song by Bjork; [semi-related: a great New Yorker piece by critic Alex Ross on new Icelandic music] lovingly intone this ancient truth..." The poem "Oceania [A Poem from the Ocean to Humanity]" follows, e.g. "Children sublime/You show me continents/I see islands."
In the section on ships, sailing and maritime culture, a couple of extremely 1950s hooked rugs, embroidered with pin-up pretty mermaids and sinister sayings by James and Mercedes Hutchinson absolutely enthralled me, especially "Mermaids Over the Bounding Wave," which, as I recall, boasted shells that glittered with iridescent thread, and just four lines of text that ended in a sailer's assured death.
Pascal Verbena, who lives and works in Marseille, crafts elaborate, seemingly enchanted chests out of driftwood and hides scraps of paper bearing poems and messages safely away inside. Another piece that caught my eye was Mark Casey's painting of a brown-haired woman wearing a blue dress, seated in a rowboat and viewed from behind as it sails through the air in what looks like a narrow fjord. It seemed to me to be a pretty good approximation of the show - an elegant and well-organized jumble of forms of expression and understanding of water's indelible, although no less mysterious, imprint on our lives.
The museum has a marvelous giftshop, part old-fashioned variety store and part typical - albeit very well done - museum store, with the most clever, offbeat and well-designed selection of greeting cards and writing papers that I've ever encountered, and of course, that creative essential, Moleskine notebooks [related: Moleskinerie]. I was a bit taken by the version that is laid out storyboard-style; I hadn't seen that format before.
The overall selection of goods was excellent, featuring book with exuberently charming titles such as Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District and Elissa Stein's Cheerleader: Ready? Okay! as well as simple truths hand-embroidered in sweet little frames, several issues of Raw Vision and Found, and the full line of Monkey Moments cards.
As for me, I bought a cocktail ring with a big blue plastic "sapphire" for two dollars (it's so heavy - now I know how Elizabeth Taylor feels!), and made a note to go back again. The whole place is a heady letter to overlooked beauty in all its myriad forms. As I stepped to walk out into the bright midday sun, and Sade's "No Ordinary Love" came on just as I was leaving, I realized I really knew what she meant this time.