I have been distracted in exhibitions recently. My eyes are drawn from the work on the walls to the wall color, the arrangement of work, the lighting, the electrical outlets near the floor, the shadows and conversations of other viewers. I start by looking at the work, earnestly engaging with it. I slowly notice my gaze drifting to the frame around the painting, print, photograph, and, once I notice the frame, my eyes do not return.
This distraction came to a head at a painting show, full of people gathered to see the handful of big-name painters, neglecting the rooms full of excellent but lesser known works. I wandered the rooms almost alone enjoying the large and small canvases, the studies and prints, and, as I turned into the crowded rooms, the frames around the paintings shifted register from relatively simple, muted wood frames to filigreed, gold-leafed extensions of the paintings that domineered more than simply framed them.
Frames protect, augment, enhance, overshadow, and fundamentally alter artwork. The extra-artwork environment is a series of frames, more and less explicit — traveling to the exhibition, entering the gallery, negotiating the others in the room, moving along a particular path from one work to the next. Entering each frame primes our mind and our bodies for the experience we are about to have. Some frames are explicit (the frame, the matte, the wall color); some frames we control (how much coffee we have had, whether we brought a sweater to guard against the air conditioning); others are too hidden to register as present, minimized by the more visible, convenient frames we have learned to see. We cannot and do not need to control all of the frames we enter, nor should we necessarily be concerned at the fact that they are too numerous and subtle for us to understand.
The problem with frames is that the obvious frames, the gold-leafed, filigreed painting border and the white cubes that contain them, can lull us into believing that we are fully aware of the multiple frames that surround us, that we are objectively observing and seeing a truth beyond all frames. Observing the painting border does not mean that we recognize the institutional framework that guides the artists shown and the artists never selected. Noticing that lively street corners and good restaurants make for places we want to spend time does not mean we know the history of urban planning, revitalization, and gentrification. Acknowledging the explicit racism of individuals does not mean we understand or can dismantle the structures of white supremacy that surround us that are designed to operate without conscious and explicit approval.
In a brand new book, I found the first page of the third chapter dogeared, placed back in position but creased, the surrounding pages mirroring its folded imprint. This book is, of course, not brand new; it did not arrive in my hands straight from the press, the bindery, the guillotine. I imagine the lives it has known, the many people in whose hands those pages have breathed to life, the minds who call it into being — the packer, lounging on a smoke break with the book half-hidden from supervisors, the bookstore clerk, sneaking it below the register. Everyone finding solace and freedom, a way out of their mutable existence into the ever-constant life of the book. This human touch, this reminder that I am not alone in this vast world, helps me step back from the books’ frames, to connect through time and space, to reach out through the interconnected, interwoven frames that buffer us, isolate us from others navigating their own frames, to touch another life, not through exceptional effort or awareness of those frames, but rather through the very act of accruing our lives one moment at a time.
Recognizing the frame, acknowledging its presence as an integral context and portion of artworks and our lives is simply the beginning. Art does not live outside of context, outside of our experience(s) of observing, absorbing, consuming, and participating in it. We must use the moment of observing the frame as a way to move through and past it, placing it within the larger context of the world through which we move every day.
This morning, I lay under a scanner at the doctor’s office, a robot arm buzzing and whirring above me, a technician explaining the mathematical models they use to interpret the results. I stared at the mass produced, calm-inducing pastel print hung before me in the dimly lit room, and all I could see were the frames surrounding it — the white matte and thin silver frame, the bibles and golf magazines on the waiting room tables, this long and short life we have, its present moments ever-elusive, ever-escaping our notice as we peer into the all too clear past and the darkening future. The frames surround us; we are never outside of them, yet we are not held prisoner.