Sunday, April 22, 2018

This is Why You Don't Want to be Too Holy

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: closing on July 8, 2018

I think even people who are not Christian, or not religious at all, know something about St. Francis of Assisi.  If nothing else, I think many people know of his association with animals.  If I remember correctly, he was part of a wealthy family, who gave up his worldly possessions (of which there were many), in order to become a monk.  What I had forgotten about is the fact that he received the stigmata, which means that the recipient bears the wounds suffered by Jesus on the cross. 

Only very true believers receive these marks, so I always made sure to be at least a little bit bad growing up, just to be on the safe side.  Now that I'm an adult, my skeptic-o-meter is turned up to 11 when it comes to stigmata, so I will make no statement about if or how St. Francis received these wounds.  True or not, the story has been the focus of artistic renditions for centuries, and some examples are currently on display at the National Gallery.

St. Francis is said to have received his stigmata after a 40-day fast at a place called La Verna.  He was accompanied by Brother Leo, who seems to have been a sort of "Sancho Panza" equivalent.  The depiction of the actual event usually involves a floating cross with rays that come down and pierce St. Francis' skin.  There are a variety of different media in use: woodcuts, paintings, drawings, and the works span several hundred years.  One common feature I noticed was the presence of a skull - a memento mori, apparently.

Verdict: i can't advise a trip solely to see these works, but if you are interested in St. Francis or depictions of religious events generally, it's worth a look if you're in the National Gallery for another show.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Painting with a Trowel

Where: National Gallery of Art (West Building, Main Floor)

When: closing July 1, 2018

In the first Cezanne show to focus on his portraiture, one cannot help but wonder how much money he spent on paint, as he applies it with such a liberal hand.  In his early career especially (which is the subject of the show's first room), one has a sense of the painter building his pieces by slathering on coat after coat.

These are by no means flattering depictions, either.  Either his subjects were singularly devoid of vanity, or they were less than happy with the end result.  Sour expressions are the order of the day.

As Cezanne progressed in his career, the brutal techniques soften a bit, but these are still not delicate pieces.  The wall notes indicate that he had "intense perceptions of the world."  The paintings seem to support that view, assuming that he was painting what he saw.

Verdict: If you like Cezanne, you should absolutely check this out.  Otherwise, I didn't dislike the show, but it didn't "wow" me either.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

He Had a Dream

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: closing April 30, 2018

It's always a good idea to see the photographs in the Honoring/Remembering space as quickly as possible, as they can change without warning.

Right now, this photograph of the Rev. Martin Luther King is on display.  It's one I've seen many times in reproduction, but I've never seen "live."  It was taken by a history teacher named James Lewis Hiller, at a meeting of high school teachers.  The meetings were segregated, and Hiller, who was white, went over to the meeting of African-American teachers, as he wanted to hear Dr. King speak.

The photograph shows Dr. King in a pensive mood, as if listening carefully to another speaker. I often think that one of the things we are sorely lacking today is an ability to listen to others.

Verdict: A great photograph - if you're in the museum for a show, take a moment to stop by and see it.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Ikats with a Friend

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: closing July 29, 2018

Usually, I go by myself to see exhibits.  I'm an introvert, so I can make my own fun just fine.  I get a nice walk to and from the venue, and I can take as long as I like in the show.  Plus, it gives me a break from work, where I spend a lot of time communicating with others.

This week, however, I took a friend with me to see the Ikats display at the Sackler.  She's a great fan of these textiles; she even wore an Ikat shirt in honor of our trip!  It was a lot of fun to go with her, and I realized I might be missing out on the insights that others bring to shows by always going alone.

Ikats are textiles made in Central Asia; they date back to the time of the Silk Road, yet are still wildly popular today.   I'd describe them as a sort of tie-dye, but this reflects my 1970s childhood and is a gross simplification.

This particular exhibit brings together some historical ikats and some ikat inspired creations by Oscar de la Renta.  The fabrics are quite large, so each room only contains a few examples, but you can get up quite close to them, to better appreciate the artistry involved.  I think my favorite pieces were a lovely de la Renta dress in a floral pattern (perfect for a summer wedding) and a carpet made of several pieces sewn together.  The notes about the carpet indicate that, "Perfection was obviously not a high priority."

Verdict: A fun show, especially if you like ikats or are interested in textiles.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Photographs of Discomfort

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: closing May 28, 2018

Apologies for the radio silence lately; I'll blame it on the weather, other lunch time obligations and an ever-burgeoning workload.

This week's sojourn was to the National Gallery, to see a large show (really too long for a lunch hour) of Sally Mann's photographs.  A native of Virginia, she photographed the American South, both its people and its landscape.  I went in expecting to see standard photography and left feeling disquieted and slightly disturbed.

The first room contains photographs of her children.  If I hadn't read the wall notes, I might have thought these were snapshots of family gatherings or the carefree days of childhood, but Mann staged these photos, sometimes shooting and re-shooting them many times until they were just right.  I don't have an issue with an artist wanting to get "the perfect shot,"  but I did feel my eyebrow rise at the thought of posing her children for these pictures, well past the point when it would have been enjoyable.

Many of her photographs are nudes of her children, and we're not talking about baby in the bathtub shots.  There was a side view of one of her daughters, aged 9, that I thought was a bit much.  She is still (all too clearly) a child, but I think that's over the line.  At 9 you have friends, classmates, neighbors etc., and I can't imagine you'd want all of those people to see you naked.  There was also one of her son, with a title something like "This was the last time Emmett posed nude in the river."  The wall notes indicate he'd been posing for a long time in the cold water, and he'd told his mother he was done.  Good for you, Emmett.

Now, I realize I don't know these people and am putting my own feelings onto them.  Perhaps they were all perfectly willing to pose in this way.  The wall notes do indicate that the children helped Mann pick out photos for her book, which seems to indicate consent.  But I couldn't help but think, "These are children.  She is their mother.  How much room do they have to protest?"

Moving on, the show transitions to her landscape photos, which I liked much better.  She traveled to Mississippi to take pictures of the area where Emmett Till was murdered.  I suppose it's a cliche to say the photos were haunting, but that's the best word I can come up with.  She also used the collodion wet plate technique to photograph the forgotten corners  of Civil War battlefields, using the technology of the era to better capture its events.

And there are photographs of the woman who cared for her when she was growing up, Virginia Carter.  We see her, and her with Mann's family and her with her own family.  There are also photographs of young African American men, not people she knew personally, but local college students who modeled for her.

Verdict: I'm not quite sure what to say about these photographs.  I think the landscapes are good, but I think the pictures of her children are borderline voyeuristic.  So I'm left with discomfort.

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.