January is not a time that recommends itself to walking in an outdoor sculpture garden or arboretum, even in the South. It is, however, when fair weather-oriented trade groups gather to yawn through license-renewing CEU sessions with the expectation of an open bar and free food between classes. While Mike pressed flesh (followed by hand sanitizer in this raging flu season) and pushed product through this captive audience, I took myself off to see the (Raleigh) North Carolina Museum of Art, intending to spend most of the visit with the outdoor sculpture in its Museum Park.
Alas, as with our recent trips to Athens and Savannah, Georgia and Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, the weather was disinclined to cooperate with my wishes. Those three destinations were mostly cloudy, cold and rainy. The sun accompanied me to the Raleigh art museum but was mercilessly pummeled into a background role by a cruelly cold wind. Deciding lunch would be my best fortification against nature bullying me around the sculpture field, I found my way into the museum’s newer west building to its restaurant, Iris. And a lovely, civilized place it was — a totally open floor design, comfortable molded chairs, a tasty and imaginative menu, and thank Bacchus, wine to prepare me for a chilly jaunt. Flanked by an oversized bird’s nest sculpture, I sipped my malbec, inhaled the aroma of a Middle-Eastern inspired soup, closed my eyes and let the warmth of the diners’ conversations flow over and around me. Miserable January be damned.
My sculpture park goal was further hijacked by the free permanent collection beginning just outside the restaurant. Enormous male figures in seated positions hung suspended from the walls and ceiling, naturally illuminated by the ceiling coffers and full length windows wrapping much of the building. Through the sheer window coverings I could see courtyards with sculpture and long dark pools of water. Beside the information desk stood a Nick Cave Sound Suit, covered in thousands of identical fish eye buttons. The museum even had the good sense to offer free lockers to store pesky winter coats and cumbersome purses. I opted to see the indoor exhibition first.
The galleries contained the usual assortment of Dutch masters framed in dark wood, unhappy religious masterpieces, and oils of doughy-visaged royalty with bug-eyed lap dogs, all of which the museum is justifiably proud. My eyes glaze over at those wonderworks after having seen many similar pieces in other museums. Incredibly, the North Carolina Museum of Art allows photography of its permanent collection, the ability to go into the courtyards to see the sculpture there and then re-enter the building, and the chance to literally get nose-to-nose with a roomful of Rodins. I lingered among those 40 or so black moldings, further marveled over the intricate detail of an exploded Egyptian sarcophagus, and imagined what it would be like to don the piranha-like African headdress. Barricades and glowering staff were non existent. This was quite literally the closest I’ve ever been to priceless and precious artwork. More than one grandparent was there, leading their young charges down the artful path.
The afternoon slipped away and I finally bundled myself out to walk the few miles through the sculpture park. Heavy equipment trundled by as I headed down the path past a contractor’s company sign. To my dismay, nearly every sculpture was surrounded by orange construction fencing as new paths and exhibit upgrades were being installed. What better time, after all, than the middle of winter to accomplish those tasks? Only the handful of people braving the cold would be deprived of an unobstructed view of quirky gargantuan wheels and collapsed giants. I walked the path regardless and photographed the few sculptures that I could; the rest can be seen here.
The museum has rotating exhibits in its original east building. Currently Edvard Munch is featured. I wore myself out tramping around the sculpture park and walking around the west building’s bright, hospitable galleries, and ran out of time before I could get to that exhibition. But, it is January after all, and Mr. Munch’s art is, well, somewhat depressing: “The Scream;” “The Vampire;” “Anxiety.” Another time, maybe, when the summer sun melts that winter wind into a pleasant breeze. And until you can get to Raleigh to see the museum, here’s a preview for you: