Sunday, November 28, 2010

John Gossage: The Pond

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: until January 17, 2011

I suspect everyone will have a slightly different reaction to this set of photographs. Mine was, "let's clean this up!" I thought there was real beauty in this unimproved bit of nature, a pond somewhere between D.C. and the Eastern Shore. I also thought it was a shame people have been using it as a garbage dump for many years. I'm not suggesting that it should be beautified, or gentrified, or made into yet another piece of cookie-cutter suburban perfection. I'd just like it to not function as a place for people to toss their refuse.

The exhibit is a series of photographs of Gossage's trip to the pond, and is meant to be viewed in order, from start to finish. That would be easier if the museum had labeled the pictures in some way; as it is, I spent a good bit of time making sure I was looking at the right photo at the right time. I also found I rushed through, eager to get to the end, so I took some time to go back and look at the photos again. The viewer with lots of time could easily spend hours and not see everything in every photo, but the lunch hour viewer will get lots from this show as well.

At the end of the exhibit are photos of houses (I think they're in northern Virginia), and although in a way they're sort of tacked-on to the pond shots, they do belong in a way. They show a modest, but perfectly nice neighborhood (the photos were taken in the early 1908s, so I guess those starter homes are worth $500,000 now). There are plenty of imperfections in the houses: a boarded up window in one, and some irregularities in the sidewalk in front of another, but to me, they showed how humanity can live with both order and a bit of chaos. There is a kind of beauty in the rustic, but not if the garbage dominates the scene.

Verdict: Well worth a visit - it would be interesting to know what the pond looks like now - some 25 years later.

Investigating Where We Live

Where: National Building Museum

When: until January 17, 2011

This exhibit was designed by the teenage participants in the Building Museum's four-week summer program. The young people divide into 3 groups and go to visit a particular D.C. neighborhood. They take photographs, talk to neighborhood residents and learn about the community. The show represents the fruits of their labors, and the visitor gets to find out more about the neighborhoods they visited, as well as the kids' own learning process. All three groups reported that they had thought the neighborhood to which they had been assigned (Petworth, Trinidad or the Southwest Waterfront) would be run down or poverty-stricken. They were surprised by the vibrancy of the neighborhoods and the enthusiasm of the people they interviewed.

This is a really great program; the kids learn photography and they have a chance to change their own perceptions. The show they've designed is quite good; some of the photographs are excellent. A Step Closer, taken in Petworth, by Amira Samiy is particularly good. There is also writing to go along with the photos. Why Me? by Jasmine Marr was impressive.

Verdict: Go see this show. It's only one room, so you can easily see it in a lunch hour. It's great to see kids learning new skills and having a chance to be creative.

Guillermo Kuitca: Everything—Paintings and Works on Paper, 1980–2008

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: until January 16, 2011

As I mentioned in my last post, 'tis the season for Argentine art in DC museums. This show of Kuitca works makes a nice contrast to the show at the Ripley that I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. Rather than featuring one or two works of many artists, this show has, as its name suggests, everything by Guillermo Kuitca. It's an enormous show; every time you think you must be at the end, there's another room full of art to see. I was unfamiliar with Kuitca before I saw this show, so I was glad to see so much of his work - I feel like I know him now!

Terminal, the picture above, is the first work I saw upon entering the exhibit. It's so realistic, I stood there, expecting my bags to appear. The painting was completed in 2001, so recent changes in airport security, luggage pricing and the general mood of exasperation surrounding air travel are not reflected in this piece, but I read all of that and more in this work. Perhaps that's a definition of great art; that it continues to speak to people who see in it a commentary on events that have transpired after it was created.

Kuitca uses floor plans in his work extensively; I enjoyed looking at them, as I love examining floor plans. I always imagine where I would put furniture in the various rooms, how the people living in the house would move around, and where they would store their belongings. One of his floor plans he entitled "Childhood of Christ." I can make no sense out of the title, but I like the work.

The items which moved me the most were the maps painted on mattresses. I think the idea is that the mattress is the most intimate of locations, but road maps are general and public, with no particular meaning for the viewer. My experience, however, was completely different. One of the mattress maps was of northern Minnesota, and featured Crookston, Bemidji and Park Rapids, all places where my family members have lived. What a shock to see these small (and to anyone else meaningless) towns featured in a major modern art exhibit!

Finally, Kuitca also creates architectural plans, including The Tablada Suite. The patience necessary to draw every seat in an entire stadium is mind-boggling.

Verdict: By all means, see this show. It's quite large, but you could skim through it fairly quickly, if you looked at one or two pieces in each room.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Southern Identity: Contemporary Argentine Art

Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 23, 2011

If you are interested in Argentine art, now is the time to visit Washington's museums; in honor of its bicentennial, there are several shows featuring the art and artists of this country currently on display. I was thinking as I walked over to the Ripley that I really know nothing of Latin American art, and I was glad of an opportunity to fill this gap in my knowledge.

"Southern Identity" is a survey of the contemporary art of this country, and although it's a large exhibit, the Ripley has done a nice job of organizing the show. It's divided into several different sections, so that even though you're looking at pieces by different artists, they "go together" thematically. They've provided a diagram of the exhibit that shows you where you are as you move through, a nice touch. The Ripley may be underground, and its International Gallery may be a pretty lousy exhibit space, but the curators there do the best they can - which is quite good.

Quite a few works caught my eye including:
  • a picture that from a distance I thought was a Christ figure, but then realized was Eva Peron eating the entrails of Che Guevara
  • a traffic camera by Jorge Macchi where the cars represent notes on a staff - less lazy than the usual traffic camera installation
  • Leon Ferrari's sculpture of Christ crucified on a USAF plane
  • a landscape series by Eduardo Stupia that looks like the blotter paper of a manic doodler
  • several pieces by Tulio de Sagastizabal with really wonderful colors
  • a piece by Marta Minujin with similar colors, placed in the same area - hats off to the person who set this up - each artist's work plays up the work of the other
  • the picture displayed above, by Marcos Lopez - a Last Supper of soccer players
  • an installation by Susanna Drogotta called "About to Laugh" which is constructed of vinyl fabric and mosquito netting
Verdict: worth a look, especially if you're interested in Argentine art, or would like to learn more. The great organization makes it easy to view.

Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg

Where: American Art Museum

When: through January 2, 2011

Although I'm very familiar with Norman Rockwell's work, I think this is the first time I've ever seen any of his paintings that were not reproductions - the first time I'd ever seen them "live."

I chose the word "live," with its musical connotations deliberately, as I've discovered that the difference between seeing a reproduction of a piece of art and the actual art work is quite similar to the experience of hearing live music as opposed to an album. Yes, it's the same painting, and yes, it's the same music, but the reason people go to art museums and to concerts is that there is a real, qualitative difference in the experience.

For me, the colors in the actual Rockwell pieces are much more vibrant than the colors in the reproductions. They seem to jump off the canvas - to force the viewer to notice them. I've seen more Rockwell reproductions than I could possibly count, but I've never had this feeling before. Another thing I've never noticed before is his use of the color red as an accent. It's in most of his work; sometimes as a main color, but more often as the color of a man's necktie, or a woman's shoes. Once you're aware of it, you see it everywhere.

Among the pieces that struck me most was "The Connoisseur," in which Rockwell quite successfully paints a Jackson Pollock, which mystifies a viewer. It's easy to dismiss Rockwell as a second-rate artist, but I'm willing to bet he does a better job imitating Pollock, than Pollock could of imitating him.

"Pioneer of the Air" is a fantastic art deco portrait of Charles Lindbergh; the lettering is beautiful, and rather unlike his other work. Again, he had more range than most people think.

I was interested to see a preliminary version of "Freedom of Speech." I've always thought the main figure in that painting looks much like a young Abraham Lincoln. The original figure looks much less Lincoln-ish (if that's a word, which I'm sure it's not). It would be interesting to know why Rockwell changed the appearance of the man speaking...

A painting I had not seen before is "Time for Greatness," which is a wonderful portrait of John Kennedy; better in my view than the official Kennedy portrait.

Verdict: Go see this exhibit. If you like Rockwell, you'll like him better for having seen it. If you don't like Rockwell, this will give you something to think about.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cornucopia: Ceramics from Southern Japan

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: until January 9, 2011

The Freer is one of my favorite museums. It's not very large, so even if I don't know exactly where my exhibit is, it takes only a short time to find it. It's also very quiet. Not may people seem to know about it, or visit, which is lovely. It's a closed collection - nothing new is added, and nothing is deaccessioned. It's Mr. Freer's collection, and thus it will remain. There's something soothing about visiting: even though it's right on the Mall, with all its hustle and bustle, it's a place that invites contemplation. It's relaxing just to think about it.

I was able to do more than just think about it recently, as I visited this exhibit on Japanese ceramics. I don't know enough about porcelain to comment authoritatively on what I saw, but I found the Arita ceramics reminded me strongly of Delft pottery - lots of blue and white. I also noted that the makers of this porcelain must have been quite busy, as they were required to send 2000 pieces to the shogun and his officials every year. Very nice, if you're the recipient of these art works; not so nice if you're the one having to produce all this on deadline!

I saw several examples of tea bowls - a lovely item with beautiful proportions. There were so many serving items for tea that I was stunned. Here, it's hard to get one cup of tea in a restaurant! How nice to be in a culture where one's beverage of choice is so popular that there are countless products to facilitate one's imbibing.

Another item I particularly enjoyed was a tea ceremony water jug with a plum tree design. Really lovely, with delicate flowers. I'd like to be the government official receiving this!

Verdict: It's always worth a trip to the Freer. This exhibit is very nice, especially if you like Japanese art or tea ceremonies.