CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Art thwarting: A day at the museum (Part 1)

If you want to know what it feels like to be a terrorism suspect, you don't have to wait for a trip to the airport: you can experience the joys of over-zealous policing right here at the University of Virginia Art Museum.

Last week I paid what I thought would be a routine visit to the Rugby Road venue. As soon as I walked through the front door, however, a guard I didn't recognize barked, "Can I help you?" "Yes," I said, "I need to get a parking pass." 

"What are you here for?" he asked, grim-faced. "Um, I'm here to see the Christenberry show," I said. 

"So, you're here to see the museum?" Well, yeah. A sympathetic student handed me a yellow parking pass, and I dutifully trudged back through the fraternity yards (the massive construction project at the architecture school has blocked pedestrian access to the road connecting the museum to its temporary lot) to dangle it from my rearview mirror.

When I returned, the guard snapped, "You have to leave your bag here." I looked at the jumble of backpacks, unchecked and out in the open, considered what was valuable in my purse, and said, "No– look, I come here all the time, and I've never been hassled about my purse before. I'm a writer– it has my pens, notebooks, and cellphone..." The guard started to growl, but the student intervened when I mentioned museum staff I knew by name and let me go. 

Once upstairs, I took off my wool coat and was immediately pounced upon by another unfamiliar guard, who told me I couldn't have a coat in the gallery, let alone my purse. I again protested. She relented but warned, "Well, just make sure you know where your bag is at all times."

"Okay," I thought, "I'm pretty sure it's going to be on my shoulder."

The whole experience left me agitated as I moved through Christenberry's otherwise fascinating exhibition, "Site/Possession," which encompasses work from the 1960s to the present. Through drawings, photographs, paintings, and sculpture, Christenberry obsessively examines aspects of his roots in the Deep South. Of particular significance are his numerous pieces dealing with those homegrown American terrorists, the Ku Klux Klan. 

Next week, I will discuss why this exhibition, especially Christenberry's multi-faceted and ominous "Klan Room Tableau" (which turns out to be at the heart of the Museum's heightened security), is worth seeing despite the hassles.

William Christenberry's epic exhibition, "Site/Possession," is on view through December 23 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.