Travel Report: Richmond (or What is Art?)

(note: Yes, I know, it’s been a while, because I’m lazy. Enough. Let’s get to it.)

I have a rather naïve and romantic notion of “discovering” each place I travel to. Too much planning takes the fun out of life, don’t you think?

The extent of my planning in this instance was that there was an HI hostel in Richmond, and the blurb suggested that Richmond was a cool city on the rise. Plus, I’d never been to Virginia before.

As I rolled into Richmond on a Megabus from Washington en una noche de viernes de enero, I didn’t even know how to get to the hostel from the bus depot. Meaningless details, who needs them? I dragged my bag onto a local bus and made it work. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I am a semi-functional adult human being.

I had only planned to stay for two nights in the city. At the hostel, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) was recommended to me. With my phone predicting snow, I figured this might be a good plan of action.

So in the morning, I headed out into the world, greeted by the joyous sting of fresh snowflakes blowing in my face and my eyes. After about a 45 minute casual stroll in what I was only 70% sure was the right direction, I did indeed stumble across the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which was a little larger than I had expected.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Much as I would like to forget it, I did briefly study Architecture ten years ago. I still have an appreciation for good concrete.
Much as I would like to forget it, I did briefly study Architecture ten years ago. I still have an appreciation for good concrete boxes.

I found my way in through what turned out to be a side-door, and wandered through a modest collection of European art before emerging into a large and beautiful modern atrium. I grabbed a map and realised not only had I entered at the wrong end, I had also barely scratched the surface of the VMFA’s collection.

The museum holds a number of striking paintings by Frederick Childe Hassam and John Singer Sargent, two American artists whose work I knew next to nothing about.

I should state here for the record that I’m little more than a casual art enthusiast. I barely know my duodenum from my appendix when it comes to art history and art theory. What I do know is that some art, and some artists and styles in particular, trigger a powerful and visceral response in my body and/or my brain.

Here are some of the pieces I enjoyed:

Art for Art’s Art

The VMFA’s modern collection includes a particular Rothko from 1960, one of the dark purple ones. Now you can go ahead and call me a hopeless off-the-shelf hipster, but I do really love the colour field work of Mark Rothko. Every time I see an original Mark Rothko piece, I am overwhelmed by what I assume is an emotion of some kind.

It’s hard to describe this to people who’re not interested in abstract expressionism, or art in general. But for all you sneering “that’s not art, I could have done that!” types, the following screed is aimed squarely in your direction.

I showed some jpgs of Mark Rothko’s popular paintings to my then-colleagues last year, and the main response I heard from them was that they looked like lousy paintings of beds. I think they were being a little facetious to wind me up, but I get it. I understand. Mark Rothko is not for everyone.

What I don’t care for is the implication that just because it’s not a painting of a thing you recognise, that it must be the Emperor’s New Clothes. That nobody could have a genuine enjoyment of this art, therefore they must be pretending to appear intellectual and smarter than you.

Fuck that noise.

Yes, Rothko’s most famous works are primarily composed of fuzzy-edged rectangular patches of colours.

I’m not here to tell you’re missing something visually. The idea of abstract impressionism is not necessarily to encode some traditional visual idea inside of weird angular shapes just to annoy you for not being hip enough to pretend there’s something going on that the plebs can’t see. Sometimes it just is what it is. Sometimes it is overwhelming fields of colour. Sometimes it is an odd geometric arrangement of elements.

What I can say is that abstract art, and Mark Rothko in particular, often does something to me. It makes me feel – which is something that endless classical galleries full of old classical portraits of disgusting rich historical shitheads do not. When I see a painting like this, it’s like a gut punch. It speaks of raw feelings, of depression, of love, of desperation, of pain, of joy, of struggle and suffering, of overcoming and triumph. It’s a direct and powerful communication of a primal, universal language, outside of the ephemera and minutia of every day life.

I had a Rothko print hanging in several bedrooms I lived in during my student days – one of the orange, yellow, and red ones. It was important to me. It spoke to me. All of the weird boring music I’ve made over the past ten years or so is aimed at that same undefined truth that Mark Rothko invokes. It’s an obsession with the true fabric of things, stripped of adornments.

Obviously I’m not some lone maverick here. Mark Rothko is a hugely popular artist, and my reaction to his work is by no means rare. Rothko obviously hit upon something that works for a lot of people, but not everyone.

That’s the point of art, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be a painting of a vase of flowers. It could be a painting of things we can’t see with our eyes, a sculpture of a shape that defies physics, a sound that sounds like machines grinding their teeth through the core of the Earth.

Anyway, the VMFA has a Rothko, and if your art museum has a Rothko, I’m basically on board.


The VMFA holds a great selection of contemporary art. One striking piece by Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira is a twisted root-like sculpture built out from the frame with plywood. I was also highly impressed by a Dean Byington piece, an incredibly dense and detailed monochromatic landscape with seemingly the entire history of human architecture etched in contradictory visual perspectives into the walls of an enormous excavated crater.

In the end I was so impressed by the VMFA’s collection that I unintentionally ended up spending around five hours taking it all in, and ran out of time to visit anything else. But I’m not one to go places just to check off lists, and take photos of myself standing in front of them. I go where my legs take me.

Fan District

The snow had ceased, and a meandering walk back under overcast skies allowed me to enjoy the architecture of Richmond’s Fan District – an absolutely crazy hodgepodge of colonial revival nonsense. All kinds of incorrectly proportioned Doric columns and neoclassical frontages jutting out of pristine brickwork, cast iron fencing, Gothic windows, and little flashes of art deco geometry…

It’s wonderful, in a way – although certainly much of this affluence is the historical product of slave-ownership. This was the capital of the Confederacy after all. It’s hard to escape that feeling sometimes, with statues of Confederate heroes dotted around.

Thankfully Richmond has moved far beyond its Confederate historical roots, and now presents itself as relaxed but vibrant college town, with a great arts scene, great food, and friendly people.

Richmond today fits neatly into a general category of hipster hotspots like Brooklyn, Portland, Seattle, Austin, et al. It’s also part of a wave of new cosmopolitan progressive-leaning cities in the traditionally conservative south.

It’s probably no coincidence I find myself in these places, they’re the main places in the US that actually have hostels.

That evening I wandered over to a vegan café/bar, and ordered some kind of tofu sandwich from an absurdly cute young lady with blue hair. I sat and enjoyed it surrounded by a host of weird, young, hip, socially conscious, opinionated, art college students apparently back from the Christmas break. Of course, I would never dare to speak to them. But they seemed like they were having fun – why rain on their parade?

If I had known I would enjoy Richmond so much, I’d have stayed a bit longer. Better to leave wanting more, than exhaust myself. The next stop was originally to be Savannah, Georgia, but the lack of a hostel, led me to throw out those plans.

Instead, with very little planning, I ended up in Charleston, South Carolina.

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