Friday, 30 July 2010

Raleigh, Old Chap: of Motels and Art

There's one thing sure about the vaunted research triangle of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, N.C. Without a car, you're immobilized. The limited public transpo is clearly designed for workday blue-collars to get to their jobs and back.

So I booked a Mazda subcompact at Raleigh/Durham Airport for the lovely low rate of $17.99 a weekend day. Summer-shy of business travelers, they even offered to let me have it at the same rate until midnight Monday.

I had flown down on my new packet of USAir senior coupons. An ambiguous note in Modern Maturity had seemed to say you needn't book two weeks ahead but could stand-by, space available. I bought my packet at Philly International the same day I flew down. Airline clerks seem fuddled by the ambiguity themselves, but they're willing to let you fill an empty seat.

I headed to the nearest Motel Six. Not only have they Tom Bodetted into a major chain (more than 600), but they publish a handy directory with state maps, city highway charts and local attractions. There was a (well-used) pool, soft drink machines, news vending stands, but no restaurant.

Given its location--near where I-40 and U.S. 1 intersect--you need a car even to eat at nearby Pizza Hut, Waffle Hut or Shoney's (no prime gourmet location, but I highly recommend the Friday and Saturday gorge-on-seafood-till-you-burst special--catfish and clams were suicidally savoury).

I hadn't been to Raleigh for about five years, and the downtown hasn't improved as far as I could see. Abandoned on the weekends to seniors (who've recycled the former premier hotel, the Sir Walter) and transient blacks, it was a bleak cityscape. Amtrak sits in scuzzy isolation on the downtown's southeastern perimeter, Greyhound demoted to the old Trailways on the southwestern perimeter. (On my last visit, a spanking new Greyhound station gave you an architectural lift entering the city; it has been sold to the Post Office for an annex.)

There are no hotels near Amtrak, so you'd probably want to taxi over to the Holiday Inn/Capitol, which has attractive weekend packages when state government workers are out of town. Journey's End Motel, kitty-korner from Greyhound, is cheap and functional. If you fly in, there's a Great Western right across from Terminal C.

I had never pitstopped at North Carolina State University, the land-grant institution that did the dirty work of vet. med., dairy ag and nuclear engineering, leaving the professions to Duke and Chapel Hill. NC-SU's niche is aptly symbolized by the title of its student newspaper, The Technician. It's a scruffy campus, split in part by Hillsborough Avenue. The best thing I found was DJ's Campus Bookstore, where you can buy out-of-town newspapers as well as pick up free alternative papers like the excellent Independent Weekly.

But what I most wanted to see in Raleigh was its North Carolina Museum of Art on Blue Ridge Road. Its next-door neighbor is the penitentiary, encircled by two of the most formidable-looking rings of concertina wire I've ever seen.

Conscious of the anti-cultural milieu, architect Edward Durrell Stone has hunkered his building down behind green grass bunkers. Once you're inside, it's a kaleidoscope of interesting intersecting levels. If I hadn't stuffed myself at the International House of Pancakes, I would have stopped at their Sunday brunch. An exotic menu, a splendid view of the surrounding meadows and a live classical concert.

The American collection is particularly strong. There's a fine Eakins, of Dr. Albert Getchell (1907), who married one of the painter's students; two good William Merrit Chase portraits. But what really dazzled me was a small but fine thematic show, "Objects of Delight: Three Hundred Years of Still Life Painting," on view through the end of December.

This genre, I discovered to my mind's delight, represents a transition from the unalloyed religious commitment of medieval painting to a fascination with love of the secular. Those visual feasts meant to delight the senses are rarely found before the early 15th Century.

The genre begins to emerge around 1420 in Flanders as part of a new fascination with the visible world, which late Gothic artists invested with religious significance through disguised symbolism. Still-life elements played a subsidiary role until the 1560s. Two intellectual revolutions in Northern Europe--Calvinism and the Copernican world-view--matured the genre. Since the Calvinists considered purely religious paintings idolatrous, Dutch and Flemish artists shifted to market and kitchen scenes.

The most interesting convergences of these at least theoretically antagonistic forces occurs in the Dutch "Vanitas" still-life. Their imagery derived from emblem books and other popular literature and prints: They embodied the dour but earnest Calvinist ethic by preaching temperance, frugality and hard work.

They emphasized the vanity of all worldly things, the brevity of life, the inevitability of death. But paradoxically, they did this by attending very carefully to the marvelous surfaces of life. Life may indeed be short, but by God it is sweet. The subtext was cancelling out the text.

Vanitas in vain. The tiny butterfly in the remote right background of Francois Desportes' "Urn of Flowers with Rabbit" (1715) might suggest to the careful looker that those fruits and flowers were ephemeral. But they sure were nice while they lasted. The program for cultivating other-worldliness has been subverted by the marvels of this very real world.

I love this kind of show which doesn't hoo and ha about being complete but just takes a neat idea and exemplifies it with intelligence and imagination. In curatorial victories like this one, the small museum need never kowtow to the heavy hitters at the Met and the Louvre. The art of presenting art is in the eye of the curator.        

Reprinted from Welcomat-After Dark, Hazard at Large, November 13, 1991

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