The Slow-Cooked Sentence

My response to another’s paradise

Rachael Conlin Levy

Call me an art ignorass
to wonder aloud why glass,
smudged and specked,
in need of Windex,
gets gallery lighting and pass.


The weather was crummy so my family went to see the photographs of Isaac Layman, a Seattle artist who turned his lens inward, studying the small and unoriginal pieces of his home. It was the final day of the Frye Art Museum’s exhibit “Paradise” and we passed one room lined with empty frames. In another room, a large photograph filled one wall with its soft, luxurious folds of gray, but as we walked closer we discovered it was used tissues from when the photographer’s family had been sick. Here is art, then. One of life’s banal mementos transcending its base and contemptuous origin and, for a brief second, becoming beautiful, right? Maybe.

“Isaac Layman’s photographs are hyperreal visions of the mundane spaces and objects found in his Seattle home. … They are ultimately unremarkable scenes, but Layman feels an affinity to them as they are endearing representations of all he has,” according to the Lawrimore Project.

We returned to the room with its blank walls and discovered that this was intentional. The empty frames held glass removed from the windows of the photographer’s home. I stood and stared, shifted my perspective, puzzled over what I should appreciate about these squares of dirty glass and decided to be grateful that it was not lint found in Layman’s navel.

I left the museum feeling annoyed with such a wide, forgiving definition of art, and that night I woke with the limerick in my head. But today — as the sun threw into high relief my own smudged and specked glass from which I view all that I hold dear — I decided to not disparage what I failed to appreciate by throwing rocks through another’s windows. After all, I might be more like Layman than I wish to admit in searching for the significant in what is dull and commonplace, he with his camera and me with my pen.

6 responses to “My response to another’s paradise”

  1. Linda/Mom says:

    Makes me think of what each of us sees when peering through glass. When I was a teen, I worked in a bakery and small children, with their grubby little hands, would lean against the glass display case, ogling the dainty pastries and cupcakes piled high with frosting. As they pressed against the pane, little mouths opened and they began licking the glass, imagining how yummy these treats tasted. From my point of view, I beheld a most untidy, unsanitary sight and the inevitable chore, once the munchkins were on their way with cookies in hand, of cleaning the display case glass yet again.

  2. anno says:

    Interesting topic, and one that deserves a lengthier response than a comment allows. A pot of coffee? A bottle of wine? Maybe someday.

    For now, just this, from Madeleine L’Engle’s memoir/ meditation on writing, “A Circle of Quiet” on the need for joy in one’s work:

    “Here again joy is the key. A decade ago we took the children through Monticello, and I remember the feeling we all had of the fun Jefferson must have had with his experiments […]: what sheer childlike delight it must have given him. I fancy that Lewis Carroll was truly happy when he was with children, and especially when he was writing for them. […] Mozart, in pain, unhappy, wrote sheer childlike joy[…]

    …One of the greatest delights of writing is in seeing words we never expected to appear on the page. But first of all we have to go through the fear that accompanies all beginnings—no, not fear, but awe: I am awed at my temerity when I sit down at the piano to play a Mozart sonata; I am awed when I sit down at the typewriter to start a new book and so step out into that wild land where the forgotten language is the native tongue.”

    Seems like this is at least a place to start when considering a new artist: is there some kind of joy that animates the work?

    For the record, there is breathtaking joy and tenderness in the stories you write. I get the feeling that the show you saw was not much elevated by either quality.

  3. Kyna says:

    In the end, I think we all crave substance.

  4. The way each of us views a work of art, it is so subjective, and as you found, sometimes shifts with time. What is good, bad, substantial? We all have our own views and should embrace them. I think it’s time for a visit to SFMOMA.

  5. Rachael says:

    Anno, I agree it’s critical to a piece’s success. After all, if the creator is bored how could anyone else be anything but?

    Still, I feel uneasy and a bit nervous in my teasing because I don’t *get* the framed pieces of dirty glass.

  6. Bridget says:

    I’m with you! I’m a Layman fan and included him in an exhibition I curated for the Henry, but the glass, well…

    It was so good to see all of you at the Frye – it made Mark & my day!

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