Saturday, January 12, 2019

A New Tide: Early Works by a Master Photographer

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: closing February 18, 2019

With any luck, the government will have re-opened before this show is scheduled to close.  Having a free lunch time to see this exhibit, I wasn't taking any chances on missing it.  It was time well spent, for sure.

Gordon Parks, who was self-taught, viewed the camera as his "choice of weapon" in the fight against social injustice.  He photographed those who were marginalized by mainstream society, particularly African Americans.  He had a meteoric rise from making portraits in St. Paul and Chicago to becoming the first African American photographer at Life magazine in 1949.

He did photography work for the government during WWII, then worked for Standard Oil (New Jersey) doing corporate photography, and then turned his eye to international fashion.  And that's just what he did in the 1940s.  My favorite piece is "Government Charwoman," a portrait of a cleaning woman in a government office.  It shows her holding a mop and broom, with a blurred American flag in the background.  I was reminded of Grant Wood, and the wall notes tell me I was right about that.

Verdict: Great show, well worth seeing.

*Note: due to the government shutdown, the National Gallery of Art is currently closed.

Friday, January 11, 2019

A Good Show, but a Hard One to See

Where: American Indian Museum

When: closing January 31, 2019*

If you're looking for a fun exhibit to pass some time, this is not the show for you.  This is the story of the removal of the Cherokee people from their ancestral lands in the southeastern United States to areas far west.  16,000 people were removed, of whom 4,000 died - this is staggering.

Before contact with Europeans, the Cherokee lived in a matrilineal society.  Upon marriage, a husband joined his wife's clan and the children were considered members of their mother's clan as well.  In the 1800s, during the Jackson administration, the Cherokee were forcibly evicted from their territory and made to travel to a new land in what is now Oklahoma.

Amazingly resilient, the Cherokee set up a new system of government, which survived until after the Civil War, when the American government insisted it disband.  It was only in 1971 that the Cherokee were able to once again elect their own principal chief.

Verdict: A very sad story told very well.

*Note: due to the government shutdown, the Smithsonian is currently closed.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Another Fantastic Show at the NMAAHC Gallery

Where: American History Museum

When: closing January 6, 2019*

Several years ago, when the National Museum of African American History and Culture was still under construction, the American History Museum devoted one of its exhibit spaces to shows about African American History and Culture.  I've seen all of those shows, and they have, without exception, been terrific.  The curators are phenomenal - every show, and they've been quite different from each other, is set up so well, and the stories are told so clearly.  Based on this experience, I had very high hopes for the NMAAHC itself, and, as long time readers of this blog know, they were well exceeded.

I had thought that perhaps American History would turn that gallery to other purposes once the museum opened, but happily, it has not.  The current show, which will have closed by the time this post appears, tells the story of the "City of Hope" which was set up in 1968 on the National Mall, as a way to bring attention to issues of poverty in the United States, and to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, and his legacy.

Although the U.S. was a prosperous nation after the privation of WWII, many Americans were suffering in this land of plenty, especially persons of color, the elderly and those with disabilities.  The Southern Christian Leadership Conference set up a six week long "live-in" demonstration on the land between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, a literal city, with housing, schools and other places for residents to gather.

This display has many artifacts from this time period, including the TIME magazine cover with the Lichtenstein portrait of Robert F. Kennedy.  You walk through a wagon, like the ones that many people used to travel to DC from across the country.  You hear and see recordings of people living in what was called "Resurrection City."  There's a 3D printed model of the city, so you can get a sense of the scale of what was built.  My only criticism, and I mean this to be constructive, is that it was quite dark in the exhibit.  I assume this was in part due to the fragility of various items on display, but if the wall notes could have had some additional lighting, that would have been great.

Verdict: Another triumph for the NMAAHC Gallery at American Art.  Although this show has ended, do not miss whatever comes next!

*Due to the government shutdown, the Smithsonian is currently closed.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Just Not Feeling It

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: closing January 27, 2019*

Usually, I go to the Hirshhorn and hate whatever I see.  Not always, but usually.  I was actually sort of looking forward to the Charline Von Heyl show, believe it or not.  She's only a few years older than I am, and I'm interested in what my contemporaries are doing in the art world.  This is her largest museum show to date in the United States, and I liked the idea of being part of that.  But, you know what?  My reaction to her work was "meh."  I didn't love it; I didn't hate it; I just had no reaction at all.

At first, I was intrigued by her work "Melencolia," as the wall notes tell me it's inspired by Durer (and I really like Durer).  But as I looked at her piece, I could find no connection.  It could have been inspired by anyone.

There were a lot of people there, much more than usual at the concrete dount.  The week between Christmas and New Year's is like that on the Mall.  And that crowd of people seemed to be connecting to her work.  I saw no rolling eyeballs, no children making negative comments, no shrugged shoulders.  So I guess it's just me.

Granted, modern American/European art is not my favorite.  But her stuff just left me shaking my head and thinking, "What is this?  I don't get it."  It wasn't that I didn't like it; it was that I was confused by it.

Verdict: I can't really recommend this based on my own experience, but others seemed to take to it.

*Due to the government shutdown, the Smithsonian is currently closed.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Light and Dark in Renaissance Italy

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: closing January 20, 2019*

I remarked a few posts ago that I forgot to take a photograph of the Diane Arbus show at SAAM; I forgot to bring my journal to take notes of this show. Middle age is not for sissies.

So, I'm winging this post, relying on my (obviously) feeble memory to tell you what I thought of this exhibit.  The thing I recall best is that chiaroscuro is made up of two words: chiaro (light) and scuro (dark).  In addition to providing me a guide to pronunciation, it's also a great description of these works: they are both light and dark.

As longtime readers of this blog know, prints are just not my thing.  They tend to be lots of black and white, or black and some background color, and I like things with a multi-color palette.  Plus, they tend to focus on what to me are obscure bible passages or mythological references, neither of which are my favorite topics.

This show was nicely organized and well laid out.  If you are a fan of woodcuts, you should absolutely make time to see this (shutdown allowing).  If you, like me, are not a fan, you can stop bemoaning the fact that you haven't seen it yet.  I really can't remember much about the show (other than the linguistic reference), and I can recall details about shows I loved for years.  Ask me about the Yinka Shonibare retrospective at African Art that was 8 or 9 years ago - I remember it like it was yesterday.

Verdict: Fine exhibit for woodcut fans; everyone else can feel free to give it a pass.

*Due to the government shutdown, the National Gallery of Art is closed.

Monday, January 7, 2019

About Those Japanese Photographs

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: closing January 24, 2019*

This show celebrates the Freer|Sackler's acquisition of over 400 photographs, a major collection of important moments in 20th century Japanese art.  Depicting Japanese life as it has changed over the last century (the show covers the years from the 1920s to the 1980s), the viewer sees the changes in photographic methods and sensibilities as well.

All facets of life are on display here: urban and rural, people and landscapes, modern and traditional.  Some works focus on broad social issues; other turn their lens on the intensely personal.

Verdict: Fine show for those who are interested in the history of photography or fans of Japanese art in all its forms.

*Due to the government shutdown, the Smithsonian is closed.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Adapting to New Technology

 Where: Sackler Gallery

When: closing January 24, 2019*

As hard as it may be to believe in an time when Japan is a major modern country, fully a part of world culture and politics, there was a time when it was closed off from the rest of the world.  It was only in 1853 when it was thrust onto the world stage.  With the arrival of Europeans, new influences began to intrude on traditional Japanese life.  One of these influences was photography.

Woodblock printmakers were forced to adapt their craft to differentiate their work from the new and desirable photographs available to Japanese art lovers.  This is a story that plays out in every country - the attraction of novelty threatens the appreciation of tradition.  So what is an artist to do?  This show answers that question, as it pertains to 19th century Japanese printmaking.

After the collapse of their industry, printmakers very astutely realized that photography could not capture night scenes (obviously, that's no longer true, but we're talking about early photography), so that's where they turned their attention.  I was strongly reminded of the exhibit of Whistler Nocturnes I saw here (or was it at the Freer?) a while back.  Evocative of shadows and intrigue, the prints give the viewer a sense of place, as if one is stepping into a scene in a noir novel.

Verdict: Well worth seeing, if you like prints or Japanese art.

*Due to the government shutdown, the Smithsonian is currently closed.