Sunday, January 30, 2011


Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through Spring 2011

I couldn't find a firm date on when this exhibit is closing, so I decided to see it now to avoid missing out on it. My hope is that this is an exhibit that will be closing so that it can be completely redone. It didn't have the appearance of something that was temporary, and no starting date was listed on the website, so I'm hopeful that it will soon be making way for something better.

The exhibit is clearly very old. It reminds me of the exhibits that the museum had when I visited as a child, 35+ years ago. The colors are drab, there's lot of text, and the specimens themselves seem tired. No child is going to look at this and think, "I want to study reptiles for a living!" I don't require a lot of excitement in my exhibits - really, I can make my own fun, but even I was bored. I did learn that a tortoise is a turtle with elephantine hind legs, so I can't say it was a completely wasted trip, but other than a nice walk away from the office, I didn't get much out of this.

I can say that the exhibit is in a good location - right next to the Insect Zoo. While I was there, one of the volunteers was conducting a tarantula feeding. Not every day you get to see that!

Verdict: Skip it; let's hope a new and improved reptile display will be coming soon!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Experience of a Lifetime: The Maid of Cotton Story, 1939-1993

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through March 25, 2011

I've written before about visiting the exhibits in the archives center of the American History museum - the one place you're guaranteed to get some "alone time," even in the summer. Frankly, these exhibits can be interesting or boring, and there is usually no media coverage to give you an idea of what you'll see.

The Maid of Cotton was the name of a beauty pageant that existed from the late 1930s through the early 1990s. Like most of these contests, the judges were looking for some model of virtuous young womanhood, never married, poised and pretty. (Pardon me while I roll my eyes and gag.) The point of this contest was to send this Southern belle around the world to act as a "goodwill ambassador" for the cotton industry. I noticed that none of the photos show an African-American contestant, not surprising for the early years of the contest, but pretty shabby for something that was run well into the modern era.

Some of the photos are interesting - the Maids traveled to Europe and Asia in order to promote cotton exports. Nixon appears more than once, smiling his creepy Nixon smile.

Verdict: If you're in the museum anyway, take a moment to have a look. Otherwise, you're not missing much if you skip it.

The Kennedys 50 Years Ago

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through February 28, 2011

This is a small exhibit, easy to fit into a lunchtime visit. The photographs are gorgeous, taken by Richard Avedon for a spread in Harpers Bazaar, between Kennedy's election and the inauguration. Caroline is a little girl, and John John is an infant. The Kennedys, love them or hate them, were a photogenic bunch, and this comes through in the pictures.

There is very little information given to you in the photographs, so different than the usual portraits of famous people, with the tools of their trade around them. The backgrounds are absolutely plain, so all you have are the people themselves. It's easy to read a somberness into the photos, given everything that was to come, but I can't imagine that was the contemporary reaction.

The museum notes that Harper's made a typo in the article, calling the Kennedys the 34th first family, when Kennedy was the 35th President. It occurs to me that perhaps they simply counted the Clevelands once.

Accompanying the photographs are negatives for some of them, which somehow seem more human than the final images. The Kennedys seem more relaxed in the photos that didn't make it into the magazine spread. There's also an exhibit called the "art of retouching" that shows how the original negative is changed to become a final portrait - very interesting to someone like myself who knows next to nothing about photography.

Verdict: Don't miss this small show. The photos are beautiful, and it's easy to spend lots of time seeing everything.

Several videos at the Hirshhorn

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through March 27, 2011

Once again, I made my way to the Hirshhorn, consciously lowering my expectations, hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Hit and miss, on this trip, in my view. At least I wasn't led down a dark corridor, only to be yelled at by a disembodied voice.

I saw three different installations this trip. In order to fully appreciate them all, you probably want to allow two trips for this. On the other hand, if two trips to the Hirshhorn are more than you can tolerate between now and the end of March, you can get some idea of what's going on in one outing.

The first exhibit I saw was the latest in the Black Box series of videos. I must admit, I've been pleased with this series. The videos tend to be short enough to fit within a lunchtime trip, and although they're a bit out of the ordinary, they are interesting. This video did not disappoint. It's "Staging Silence" by Hans Op de Beeck, a series of tableaux that each begin with hands coming in to set the stage (see picture above). It's obvious that these are simply little models, but once the hands move away, and the lighting changes, you can't help but be drawn in to the scene, as if it's real. The plastic trees become real, the sand swept into place becomes a stream; it's amazing that this happens over and over again, even though you know what's going on. The first tableau involved stringing street lights, and I was reminded of one of the videos I saw in the Fiona tan show at the Sackler. Yet again, one exhibit reminds me of another...

The other two shows are part of the museum's Directions series and feature works by Cyprien Gaillard and Mario Garcia Torres. The Mario Garcia Torres installation features a slide show of the Grapetree Bay Hotel in St. Croix. At one time a lovely beach destination for wealthy tourists, it's now been allowed to descend into ruin. When I say it's a slide show, that's literally what I mean. There's a slide projector that's showing slides on the wall, and you can hear the familiar click as it moves from one image to another. While I was watching, a small child, perhaps three or four years old, came into the room and remarked, "how ingenious." The exhibit, while interesting in its way, was not so riveting that I didn't hear this, and wonder how such a small child had learned such a big word. My reaction to the show was similar to my reaction to "The Pond" - let's do something about this. Yes, this hotel has fallen into disrepair, but is this a call to fix it? Tear it down? What are we supposed to do now?

The Gaillard show is less easy to describe. I admit that I didn't watch all of the videos, as I was running short of time, so perhaps if I'd seen the entire piece, I might be better able to comment. I walked into the room as a video of a riot was ending - some pushing and shoving, but not much else. This was replaced by a light show on a large building. This was interesting, but not enough to keep me in the room for the rest of the piece.

Verdict: "Staging Silence" is well worth a trip, as its predecessors in the Black Box series have been. The Directions pieces are okay, and if you're in the building anyway, you could have a look, but not worth a separate trip.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Editors' Picks: The Best of Smithsonian Magazine's 7th Annual Photo Contest

Where: Smithsonian Castle

When: through February 28, 2011

Every year, the Smithsonian holds a photography contest, with submissions in several different categories. The finalists are hung in the Castle main room, where they are on public display. I went last year, and was looking forward to seeing this year's entries. There are 7 winners and 23 other finalists, so this is an easy lunchtime outing. My only criticism is that the photos are hung in the eating area, so one can't really look at the pictures as long as one might like, without intruding on people eating. I wish they'd move the exhibit out of the main room so that I could look at the pictures in a more comfortable setting.

All of the photos are terrific, so it's difficult to pick out a few to mention, but the ones that particularly caught my eye were:
  • Sarah by Marie Land, a girl in a school uniform, showing how institutions make communities out of individuals
  • A coconut floats in the shallows by Ethan Daniels, a picture of Palau's inner lagoon - a great water scene
  • The nomads of Tagong by Conway Liao, showing how even those living the simplest of lives can be happy
  • Lonely coffee break by Tobias Putzer, a photograph of the artist's girlfriend sitting in a diner
  • Lake with flax and red gum trees by Rex Naden, I love the way the plants and trees are reflected exactly in the water, an example of "natural abstracts"
  • Tree in wheat fields by Jia Han Dong, gorgeous countryside with the curved lines of the farms, with one tree in the middle of the field
It was crowded when I went (the week between Christmas and New Year's), but I'm guessing the crowds have thinned quite a bit now. The Castle also has a lovely enormous Christmas tree in the main area during the holiday season, worth seeing on your way to exhibits at the Sackler or African Art Museum.

Verdict: Well worth stopping by, either as a lunchtime destination, or as something to see on your way to or from another exhibit.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through February 13, 2011

This is my second post on this exhibit - I felt compelled to rant about the removal of a video that some found offensive a couple of months ago. Now I've been to see the show, and can comment on the show as a show, rather than as a political football.

When I went, it was quite crowded, much more than other exhibits I've seen at the National Portrait Gallery. I was surprised at how many people were there on a random weekday, so be prepared for lots of folks.

I thought the show divided into two parts; the first half covered the era when homosexuality had to be hidden from public view. There were many portraits that contained clues to the subjects' sexual orientation, but nothing was too overt. There was a John Singer Sargent painting of a male nude - very different than his society ladies in white dresses! I learned that homosexuality was coined as a term in 1870, and it was only then that the conduct began to be considered deviant or criminal.

In 1920s Paris, the most fashionable literary circles were composed of expatriate lesbians, and there were several of their portraits in the show. There was also a portrait of Grant Wood (I don't think I knew he was gay - no sign of it in American Gothic, unless it would be the bleak portrayal of a heterosexual couple...). A Georgia O'Keefe was also on display, which did nothing for me. Apparently, she denied that her flower paintings were allegories of the female form. My reaction to that is, "Who do you think you're kidding?"

The portraits in the show are both straightforward portraits and more abstract paintings, so there's something for every taste. I saw a couple of things that were familiar - a photograph of Allen Ginsberg taken by William S. Burroughs that was in the National Gallery's show on Beatnik art, for example. There was also a photograph of David Wojnarowicz, taken by Peter Hujar, the loss of whom Wojnarowicz depicted in the removed video.

I really liked Deborah Bright's Dream Girls sequence - she puts pastel pictures of herself into Hollywood movie stills. In an image from Adam's Rib, she sits in the car with Tracy and Hepburn. There's a funny photograph of Ellen DeGeneres by Annie Leibovitz that manages to be comic and thought provoking at the same time.

The second part of the show deals with the devastation in the gay community caused by AIDS. This is somber, and one leaves the show feeling sad, that just at the point when gay people were starting to come out of the closet and live their lives openly, so many of them were lost to a horrible disease.

The piece that sticks with me the most is Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). I was inclined to be quite skeptical at first. It's just a pile of candy on the floor, but Felix Gonzalez-Torres has created something wonderful and moving. It is, in fact, a pile of candy on the floor. When the piece is installed, the candy weighs about 175 pounds, the same as his lover weighed when he was healthy. Visitors are invited to take a piece of candy with them, and as people take the candy, the pile dwindles, until there is nothing left, just as his lover wasted away to nothing from AIDS.

Finally, the last piece is Felix June 5, 1994 by AA Bronson. I'm glad I got to see this piece, as the artist has asked that it be removed form the show. It's a portrait of the artist's lover, who died of AIDS, immediately after his death. It's especially sad to see how wasted this young man was, as we now have treatments that mean AIDS is not a certain death sentence.

Verdict: Do not miss this show. It's large, so you'll need to move quickly, or go twice to see everything. It's moving because of the subject matter and interesting because of the art itself.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17-Century Chesapeake

Where: National Museum of Natural History, 2nd Floor

When: through February 2011

Note that the closing date on this may be misleading! All the online sources I check indicate that this will be on display until February 2013, but I happened to be wandering around the museum one day, after seeing something else, and noticed a large sign giving directions to the show, giving an ending date of this February. I decided to see it now, rather than miss it entirely, and I'm very glad I did.

This exhibit is very large, and probably warrants two lunch time excursions. The first part of the exhibit, which could easily take one lunch time all on its own, concerns the field of forensic anthropology in general. These scientists can examine bones and teeth to learn about a person's death, but also about their life. They have used the bones found in the Chesapeake region to learn about that society in the 1600s and 1700s.

Bones, it turns out, are unique, like fingerprints. Sculptors can put flesh on bones, enabling law enforcement to identify victims by working with forensic anthropologists. It reminded me of the way medical professionals and artists worked together in the Body Inside and Out exhibit I saw last month. In addition, surgical implants can be used to identify people, as they are all marked with manufacturers' codes. Nice to know that if I ever disappear for so long that the only thing left is my skeleton, the police will be able to identify me by my ankle pin!

The second part of the show shows how forensic anthropologists have used these techniques to get information about the people who were early settlers of the Chesapeake region. They've been able to identify Captain Bartholomew Gosnard, an important if little-known figure in American history. Scientists have discovered the settlement at James Fort, where most of the people died during what they called the "Starving time,"1609-1610. The lives of these early settlers were incredibly hard, and their bones show it. One boy, who died during an attack, would most likely have died shortly thereafter in any case, as a result of an abscessed tooth. Truly a reminder that we are lucky to live in a time when penicillin is readily available!

Finally, the skeletons of Dr. Grover Krantz and his Irish wolfhound, Clyde are on display, per the doctor's wish. Odd as it is to believe, their skeletons have been placed in a way that makes them seem happy to be together - as if they are continuing to enjoy each other. (No, I'm not a lunatic - I know that skeletons do not have feelings. Whoever set up the display just did a really good job.) At the end of the exhibit is an actual working forensic anthropology lab. If you had a lot of time available, and this exhibit is probably worth an entire morning or afternoon, you could ask questions of the scientist on duty and learn even more about bones.

Verdict: Very interesting, but requires more than one lunch hour to truly appreciate the entire exhibit. If it's really going to stay up until 2013, you could spread this out over several months (years, even) in order to see it all.

Arcimboldo, 1526–1593: Nature and Fantasy

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through January 9, 2011

I hope you've been to see this already, as it's closing today! I went to this exhibit later than I ordinarily would have done, as a co-worker wanted to go with me. Our schedules clashed for a while, and it was only over the Christmas holidays that we managed to find a mutually-convenient time to go.

This show was a lot of fun. It's perhaps the most fun I've had at an exhibit since I stared going. I've gone to exhibits that were beautiful, informative, melancholy, weird and impressive, but the one word that came to my mind as I looked at the paintings was fun.

My friend and I started our tour with the Philip Haas sculpture in the lobby outside the exhibit entrance. It's an enormous rendition of Winter, and when you see the original painting, you can even better appreciate the excellent job Haas did in re-creating it in three dimensions.

Just outside the show entrance is a diagram of Water, showing each sea creature in the painting. It's a great way to prepare visitors for what lies ahead. The show itself begins with some of Arcimboldo's influences, including several grotesques by Da Vinci. I wasn't expecting to see those, and I like it when an exhibit surprises me.

The Arcimboldo pieces are best viewed twice, once from a distance and once close up. From a distance, you can appreciate the paintings as faces, often those of court figures. From close up, you can see the constituent parts of the faces, usually flowers or vegetables. Think of them as both portraits and still lifes.

Of course, the Librarian was among my favorite pieces; this portrait was composed of books, a featherduster and bookmarks. I only wish they'd had a print of this that I could have displayed in my office at work.

Several of the paintings are reversible. There are mirrors in front of them, so that you can see them both ways. These are literally a portrait one way and a still life another.

There is a video within the exhibit on Arcimboldo and his life. If you didn't have time to watch it at the exhibit, it's also available for viewing at the National Gallery's website:

Verdict: Hope you didn't miss this, as it's a wonderful way to spend a lunch hour!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Taking Shape: Ceramics in Southeast Asia

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through 2011

On the same day that I saw the Hai Bo photographs, I also saw this collection of ceramics from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Burma. Archeologists use pots such as these to determine the interaction between ancient settlements. If they find only local pots in an area, they can conclude that the community did not have much contact with outsiders. If, however, they find many different kinds of pots, they can safely assume that there was trade between communities.

People not only created their own pots; they collected those made by others as well. They would trade other objects for stoneware they themselves didn't make, then pass these valued pots to the next generation.

I particularly liked the stoneware with the cobalt blue glaze - such a lovely, vibrant blue color. Both men and women were potters. The men made stoneware and the women made earthenware. It's always interesting to me to see that women have been involved in the artistic and craft worlds for centuries. Speaking of crafts, I was surprised to see that some of the glazes and shapes of pots were reminiscent of what I see at craft fairs I attend today.

I was also surprised (and delighted) to see that they had some stoneware and earthenware you can actually touch! It was lots of fun, and gave me a greater appreciation of the pots on display. Stoneware is much heavier than earthenware, which is what I expected. These pots are still produced today in Southeast Asia for everyday use. The women potters pass their skills down from one generation to the next - just like the African and African-American women who make reed baskets.

Verdict: The museum website is a bit vague on when this is closing, so you've probably got plenty of time before it's off display. It's worth a trip, or worth a few minutes from time to time when you're at the Sackler (or the Freer, as it's in the hallway between the two museums) for another exhibit.

Perspectives: Hai Bo

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through February 27, 2011

The Sackler often features an exhibition in their main lobby, and I usually see this when I'm on my way to see something else. If you're short of time, this small collection of photographs merits a trip all on its own.

"Small collection" is technically accurate, as it's only five photos, but they're so large, that the word "small" seems wrong. Four of the photographs are a series called "Four Seasons." It's the same view, with a man (the artist himself) sitting on a bench. In each photograph, it's a different season of the year. I found that the winter picture resonated most with me, as it's winter here now, and I had bundled up tight for the walk over. The scene is lovely in each picture, and the series is a reminder that there is beauty in each season, even though each season has its downsides.

The fifth picture is entitled "Northern No. 29" and is a man on a bicycle riding into a hazy distance by the seashore. It's just beautiful - the kind of photograph you can look at all day. It occurs to me that it's a sort of path picture, and I like those very much. It's large enough that you can feel as if you're on the road as well, cycling behind the man in the photo.

Verdict: I'm happy these photos will remain up until the end of February, so I can look at them again. A very good way to spend part of the lunch hour.