“Make sure you can read the label!”
@olia_chicago leans up against a brick wall in the garden behind the exhibition. @olia_chicago fiddles around with a scarlet tote bag until its baby pink lettering is legible: “Frida Kahlo.” @olia_chicago runs her fingers through her long hair and summons a face of pure ecstasy. @olia_chicago’s white pants are crisp and clean; @olia_chicago’s gold jewelry gleams. Click. Another pose. Click. One more. Click. @olia_chicago is satisfied. @olia_chicago leaves the garden with her red bag.
Sitting outside the Cleve Carney Art Museum’s “Frida Kahlo: Timeless” press preview, my infant chugging a bottle of formula and dripping all over my exhausted leggings, I mumbled judgmentally about the whole production. It’s a deeply millennial dilemma: I want to be great at social media; I’m humiliated whenever I see the sausage being made. I’m the kid on the old man’s lawn. I’m also the old man.
This paradox follows me to any gallery opening. Like @olia_chicago, I also post pictures to the ’gram like it’s my diary. Of course I’d planned to post photos from the “Timeless” show—especially if my husband snagged a good one of me describing the work to the baby. If I look like the kind of mother who brings their child to press openings, then I am the kind of mother who brings their child to press openings.
#ArtMom #NewMom #ChicagoMom
It’s a heady vision.
Professionally, however, I’m fucking sick of stupid people with their stupid phones standing in front of the stupid paintings. Most artwork isn’t meant to be viewed through a screen, and your friends aren’t actually interested in looking at your iPhone pictures of Manet the next time you go out for drinks. Just look at the work in real time. Please.
I imagine these contradictions, fueled by self-loathing, are understood by many of my peers.
This fussy tension between visual art and social media is even more present at “blockbuster” shows, where tickets are sold in advance and a whole roster of complementary events flank the work. “Frida Kahlo: Timeless” is no exception. Marketed as an immersive and “comprehensive presentation of the life and works of the artist,” 26 original pieces line the gallery while its website features a whole section of “Frida Events,” including “Frida Fridays” in downtown Wheaton (at one point, there was a Frida Margarita Crawl; it’s thankfully been taken off the website). The show becomes a party. Parties are, of course, for posting.
Bombast like this certainly isn’t exclusive to “Timeless,” but it does smell a little bit like frozen food with a famous chef’s face on it. In spite of the tote bags and mugs featuring her likeness and name, Frida Kahlo was a raging communist, addict, and sexual enigma. She spent most of her life in chronic pain and often painted from the center of her frazzled nervous system.
While these qualities are briefly mentioned in the two-room exhibit’s curatorial notes, the whole thing reads too tidy to be genuine. This woman was a mess, and that’s what made her glorious; the field-trip energy of “Timeless” softens those edges for a wide audience.
I can’t fully blame the Cleve Carney for this dynamic. It’s no surprise that museums, galleries, and curators have to consider social media in their gallery layouts and selections. One quick Google for “museums social media” unearths a list of strategies from tech outlets and art publications alike. One arterial thread that ties these articles together: it’s critical for creative institutions to befriend influencers (i.e. @olia_chicago). With hundreds of thousands of followers and the ability to filter their experiences just so, influencers lend an aspirational quality to the show that reaches treasured, younger audiences. It’s a symbiotic relationship all about perceived images.
This concept lends itself to my personal experiences with the show. One facet of “Timeless” that feels especially complicated to me is the family programming. As my husband, baby, and I haphazardly walked through the show, each of us bewildered to be around so many people, we couldn’t go more than five feet without a well-meaning docent telling us about the Kahlo Kids’ Corner in the back. While @olia_chicago was immediately perceived as an #ArtLover, the museum perceived me as a mother desperate for coloring books and a changing station. “You can set the baby down and he can play with some crayons,” one docent enthusiastically offered. Reader, my son is five months old. Crayons are a mystery and probably food.
It’s fair to assume that someone holding a baby might want to go look at programming developed for children. I get it. And, on one hand, I am grateful to see that kiddos are welcomed at this exhibition and that they are provided with thoughtful, whimsical material. It’s certainly a rare undertaking, and if Rocco were more than advanced meatloaf right now, I’m sure he’d get a rush. I posted about it in the Rogers Park Baby Wranglers group.
Being immediately steered away from the galleries and back to the Kahlo Kids’ Corner made me cry most of the way home. This was my first show postpregnancy and postvaccination, and I’d so looked forward to being in my art-journalist zone. And, as a new mom, I’m trying my damnedest to resist the forces that make women and queer parents inhumanely compartmentalize their roles. My kid comes to see the art with me; we might take pictures along the way.
As I process the show now, at a distance and with a cooler head, I wonder what Kahlo herself would make of it. Perhaps I’m projecting too much, but I imagine she wouldn’t love the docent who welcomed me into the main gallery like a carnival barker, saying, “Here are the 26 genuine, real-life Frida Kahlos.” I don’t think she would embrace her vast fame and influencer following—she probably wouldn’t even have a Facebook. And, like any person with a heart, she’d despise Twitter.
However, I also think it’s fair to say she is a posthumous and accidental influencer. At this point, the public, her “followers,” feels ownership over her identity, and she possesses no control over how that audience uses her image. Her artwork, robust in color and moodiness, has to compete with non-museum “experiential museums” like WNDR over in the West Loop. Disabled and hooked on painkillers, she’s somehow a plush doll and a coffee mug and a perfect backdrop to @olia_chicago’s #WeekendAdventure.
I, for one, hope she’s online somewhere out in the ether, trolling us mercilessly. v