NORTH ADAMS -- Roz Chast's clueless cartoon characters confronting the small absurdities of life are what I flip to first in the monthly New Yorker.
One I kept over my desk for years at The Eagle showed a hapless museumgoer trolling the spiral ramps of New York's Guggenheim Museum trying to comprehend artist / filmmaker Matthew Barney's famously opaque "Cremaster Cycle" exhibition of 2003.
I know how that befuddled soul felt. As an art reviewer, I have walked in her shoes, turning myself inside out to understand artworks whose intent is obscure.
So it's been at Mass MoCA this season as I've tried to put aside what I've been told in interviews about three current exhibitions and confronting the art afresh.
Take Izhar Patkin's "The Wandering Veil" as a starting point. His gigantic installation has so many backstories -- literary, cultural, and religious -- that one needs a filing system to keep them straight. When I pointed this out to him as we talked last December, he replied the stories were ones he needed to tell and were there for those who wanted to look for them.
But how do you begin to look if you don't know what you're looking for? And why should visual art rely so heavily on written explanations anyway?
I've visited "The Wandering Veil" five times since it opened and though I know Patkin's intent -- because he told me and I read his 240-page catalog -- I would gather little of what he means just by looking.
I might admire the ghostly figures and gardens and snippets of familiar and obscure events painted on mesh curtains hung from stage flats. I could appreciate the craftsmanship of his sculptures -- reimaginings in glass or porcelain of Don Quixote, the Ark of the Covenant, the Madonna and Child, among others. As to the rest, I'd have not a clue.
Surface appreciation is better than nothing, but it misses the richness of Patkin's thinking: his journey as an alien in a foreign country, his take on the pervasiveness of religious belief in language and culture, and the ties of family and friendship that he honors with his imagery.
As an artist, he is free, of course, to do whatever he wants, to be as opaque and insular as he pleases, to leave to us the job of figuring what he means.
That kind of remoteness, however, contributes to the elitist image art so often carries, one that leaves many people reluctant to voice opinions that might betray their ignorance.
Since the situation is unlikely to change, the best most of us can do is try to put aside the fear of looking stupid and simply notice what we respond to and why. The more practice we get, the less daunting the task and the more inspired we may be to dig further by reading.
Darren Waterston's "Uncertain Beauty" exhibition that features his reimagining of James McNeill Whistler's famous blue and gold "Peacock Room" of 1876-77, is easier to grasp than Patkin's veils and sculptures.
Waterston conceived his installation as a "sumptuous ruin," an allegory on the ugliness that can lie beneath beauty. In this case, the ugliness was the conflict between Whistler and his patron, a conflict between money and aesthetics that Waterston says is still very much alive in the art world today.
But the setting he creates, while evoking Whistler's original, is more curious than disturbing, more suggestive of neglect and bad housekeeping than subversive powers and an epic clash of values.
That may be because the installation is a first for Waterston. Primarily a painter, he has some stage-set design experience in his resume, but nothing of the collaborative magnitude of this project. Compared to the paintings he has on view, that with a few brush and drip strokes suggest elegiac visions in depthless space, the "Peacock Room" looks flat and contrived.
"The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor," features the work of six artists who celebrate celluloid in an increasingly digital world. It is, I think, the most approachable of the three exhibitions. Film can be more user friendly than paint and sculpture, but it too can have its obscure moments.
In the exhibition, we encounter clips of a spinning chandelier, of smoke and fire, and of a desert racetrack, among other more complex projects on the origins and uses of the cinematic process.
Lisa Oppenheim's "Yule Log" and "Smoke" combine digital and analog techniques to produce moving images that are as much about process as they are hypnotic to watch.
Simon Starling's extended narrative "Black Drop," on the connection between astronomical research and the moving image, is more compelling as a reminder of the gorgeous quality of black-and-white film than as a story about historical efforts to view the transit of planet Venus across the face of the sun.
And Rosa Barba's "The Long Road," alternately tedious and thrilling in its aerial and driver's-eye view of a desert racetrack, visually mimics the way a filmstrip rolls, unrolls and passes through a projector.
This last interpretation I might have figured out on my own, but in a hurry, I cheated and looked at the curator's statement. Written explanations do save time.