Saturday, March 10, 2018

Billy Graham and the Obamas

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: closing March 25, 2018 (Billy Graham), November 4, 2018 (Michelle Obama), and in 2028 (Barack Obama)

I've had more lunch plans than I can manage lately, so museum visits have taken a back seat.  I know, I know, it's really hard to be popular. I did manage to get over to the Portrait Gallery before a Smithsonian Associates program this week, and saw the portraits of Billy Graham, Michelle Obama and Barack Obama.

Billy Graham's portrait was unsurprising - it's a pretty standard, formal picture.  Nothing really intriguing or interesting about it, frankly.  Ho hum.

Michelle Obama's portrait (right across the hallway from Graham) was garnering a lot of attention, but I didn't need to wait in line to see it.  I liked it; it's both celebratory and serious.  I'll say her skin tone looked more gray than brown, but perhaps that was a trick of the lighting or the effect of the blue background.  When the hubbub has died down, I'll have a closer look.  It's in the "Recent Acquisitions" section.

Barack Obama's portrait was also very crowded, although I was able to look at that without standing in line either.  I liked it as well; it's different than the other Presidential portraits, and after a while, you can only look at so many stodgy old pictures.  I'll be back to see this again too.

Verdict: Unless you're a big Billy Graham fan, you can skip his portrait, and you've got plenty of time to see the Obamas.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Is This Really So Much Worse Than The Usual Hirshhorn Show?

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: closing May 13, 2018

This show is a survey of New York art from the 1980s.  It shows artists engaging with the topic of commercialism in American society, and overall, they take a dim view of that.  When I saw this was open, I made plans to see it, feeling my usual lack of interest in another of the Hirshhorn's Bataan Death March shows (those that take up the entire 2nd floor, and make you think you'll never get to the end of them).

Then, I read Philip Kennicott's scathing review of the show in the Post.  (Note: you may need to subscribe to see this; since I do pony up the $$ to have access, I'm never sure what's free and what isn't.)  He thinks the show is crass and the art on display ugly.  "Well," I thought to myself, "how would that be different from any other Hirshhorn show?"  'Cause if you want to see ugly art, the Hirshhorn is your destination.

So, I decided to take a different approach to this show; rather than go and see if I like the art or not, I decided I would go to see if this art was so awful that it would stand out from the usual offerings at the concrete donut.  My opinion: it's the usual collection of dreadful stuff.

I will say, not all of it is bad.  I really like Barbara Kruger's pieces, and having her words plastered all over the escalators gives me something to appreciate every time I come.  I was glad to see more of her work.  I also liked Donald Moffett's images of Ronald Reagan entitled "He Kills Me."  The AIDS related art really brought back that time period, not a pleasant experience, obviously, but quite effective.

The rest of it?  Ludicrous.  We had a can of AJAX on a wooden shelf, a rug shampooer hanging in front of a fluorescent light and something called "Untitled Furniture Sculpture" by Ken Lum.  It was literally couches, tables and lamps in a square - like you would see in a furniture store.  I could understand if these objects were all made of plaster; then they would be actual sculptures.  But they're not.  It's furniture.  If this is art, then so is the display at IKEA.

Verdict: The Hirshhorn's usual nonsense, with a few exceptions; not worth the walk around the building, unless you need to hit your 10,000 steps for the day.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Nature in All its Splendor

Where: Natural History Museum

When: closing in September 2018

As long time readers well know, one of my favorite exhibits each year is the display of photography contest winners at Natural History.  It's in a space tucked behind the minerals gift shop, so you have to poke around a bit to find it, but the effort is so worth it.

There are several different categories, and prizes are awarded to professionals, amateurs and young people.  I couldn't tell you which photos were taken by whom - they are all, without exception, fantastic.  This is a show that demonstrates the Smithsonian's ability to put on a phenomenal exhibit, everything about it is top-notch.

The subjects (nature, mostly animals, but also landscapes and plants) are breath-taking; the photography is gorgeous and the prints are so vivid, you feel as if you are right in the picture.  Every year, I feel wonderful after visiting; it's the best possible reminder that the world is filled with beauty.

Verdict: I can't recommend this highly enough.  You have until September to see it - do not miss out.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

There's a Lot More Than Peter Rabbit in the Garden

Where: American History Museum

When: closing August 2018

This is a display in the Museum's Library; the day I visited, the whole Museum was pretty quiet, so the Library was empty except for me.  It can be fun to see shows with others, but I really like having lots of space to myself, so this was ideal.

Americans have always been gardeners, whether out of necessity or social status signaling or fun or research.  People have gardened to raise food for themselves, or to show off their beautiful lawns or because they like the feel of the earth between their fingers or because they want to study plants and create new flowers.

I'm happy to say I learned the difference between a botanic garden (a space to practice botany) and an arboretum (a collection of trees).  I was never entirely sure if those were synonyms, but now I know they are not.

I also learned that Michelle Obama was not the first First Lady to face criticism for her White House garden; Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden during WWII, over the objections of the Secretary of Agriculture.  The more gardens, the better, in my view.

Verdict: Informative small show - if you like gardening, this is worth a look.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The World's Rarest Stamp

Where: Postal Museum

When: closing September 4, 2018

There's nothing I like better than seeing something that's the biggest, or smallest or oldest of its kind.  The stamp I saw this week is the rarest one in the world, so you know I was happy to trek over to Union Station to see it.

It's a British stamp from 1856; they issued very few of them, and there's only this one left.  It's changed hands several times and lives in a bank vault most of the time now.  This is its longest visit and most publicly accessible display ever.

It's upstairs in the stamp gallery in a box towards the back corner.  You have to push a button to turn on a light to see it, and even then, it's pretty dimly lit.

it occurs to me the curators would have been well served to pay a visit to the Sackler to see how to show priceless objects really well.  I was happy to have had the opportunity to see this item, but felt that a bit more pomp and circumstance would have been appropriate.

Verdict: It's the rarest stamp in the world!  Go see it.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Women in Wartime

Where: Postal Museum

When: closing May 8, 2018

A brand new exhibit took me to the Postal Museum this week, on the service of women in World War I.  Since 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of that conflict, I suspect this is just the beginning of World War I themed shows.  There's already a show up at Air and Space, and several displays at American History, in addition to a second show at the Postal Museum that I didn't have time to see.  I can't imagine that American Art and/or the Portrait Gallery won't have something as well.

This small display, tucked away under the escalators in what's called the "Franklin Foyer," chronicles the experiences of four women who went to serve during the war.  Their dedication was extraordinary, especially since their treatment was not equal to those of men.  They had no service rank; their pay was nothing like the same and they weren't even issued uniforms.  Nevertheless, they faced horrendous conditions and considerable danger to serve the troops, as nurses, YMCA volunteers and navy yeomen.

Verdict: You could make a nice little trip to Union Station and see this display, along with the other WWI show, although it would take longer than a lunch hour, depending on your travel time.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

That's a Lot of Outliers

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: closing May 13, 2018

I had no idea of the size of the National Gallery's concourse galleries until I went to see this show on outlier art.  They are enormous; I felt as if I was walking one of those Bataan Death March shows at the Hirshhorn.  Every time I thought I'd come to the last room, there was another room behind that, and another, and another.

In case you're wondering what "outliers" are in the art context, they are what used to be called folk artists, or outsiders.  Basically, they are artists who have not received the sort of formal training that more mainstream artists have.  This is not the MFA crowd.

This is a wide survey, so you have some pieces from the 1800s and some from this decade.  I was surprised to see some familiar work, including some examples from the New Deal era "Index of American Design."  I have the feeling I saw a show on this project many years ago and marveled at the idea of the government actually supporting artists during difficult times.  Plus, I saw Yasuo Kuniyoshi's "Boy Stealing Fruit," which I saw quite recently at his retrospective at the American Art Museum.  And there were some works by James Castle, who I also saw recently at American Art.  Clearly, the Smithsonian is doing a great job of exhibiting outliers.

There was a room with videos of large installations of outliers, including James Hampton's masterpiece in tinfoil.  I didn't have time to look at that (I was just scanning the works at that point in order to get back to the office), but of course, I can see the real thing at, yes, American Art, any time I want.

Verdict: This is really too large for a lunch time visit, unless you're looking to scan quickly.  I think the enormity of the show takes away a bit from each artist, but if you're interested in outliers, I would advise you to set aside time for this survey.