Reach out and feel the art in a new BMA exhibit


September 19, 1990|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

You know the feeling. We all do.

You're standing in the museum in front of a work of art -- a smooth, polished marble sculpture, say -- and there rises this almost irresistible urge to touch it, partly because it looks like it would feel good and partly because you know you're not supposed to.

After all, what harm would a little touch do? And who would know? All you have to do is wait until the guard turns his back or leaves the room and then, just for a second. . . . But you don't, partly because you're scared a camera may be watching or an alarm will go off, and partly because you know you're not supposed to.

Now you can. "Access to Art: Bringing Folk Art Closer" at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through Nov. 11) offers an introduction to the world of folk art through 28 works ranging from quilts to whirligigs to decoys to a chair and a rug, all but one of which can be touched.

Organized by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, the show is designed with the handicapped, and particularly the vision-impaired and the blind, in mind. It includes a catalog in Braille, a taped tour and large-print labels. Wide aisles, and tables and stands of accessible height, will also help those in wheelchairs, and for the hearing-impaired the taped-tour text is available in printed form. But the show is also for anyone with a curiosity about folk art or simply a desire to do the forbidden and touch a work of art in a museum.

Introduction is the operative word here. The exhibit is selected to present a wide range rather than any aspect in depth, and the accompanying tour offers simple explanations of the works, though it does seem to be for older children and adults. Younger children probably won't understand such terms as "communal religious society" (the Shakers), "concentric rectangles of color"

or "naturalistic representation."

There are some attractions for those who have already been introduced to folk art. They include a couple of whirligigs or wind toys with parts that move when the wind turns a propeller attached to them. Instead of the wind, you can turn the propellers and make the woman kick the cobbler, or make the workmen repair the Statue of Liberty in the more complex of the two.

There is as well a charming mid-19th century portrait of a child with a guitar, attributed to Erastus Salisbury Field (the one work that can't be touched); a crazy quilt on a painted bed; a rocking chair that shows the simple elegance of Shaker design, and, in the curiosity category, a recently created snake with undulating body composed of bottle caps. This was made in 1985 by Ron Rodriguez of the Santa Fe school, from which there are two more works by other artists.

If there is appeal to a general audience, however, the show's chief virtue is its accessibility to the handicapped. Let's hope for more of the same.

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