Saturday, July 30, 2011

Lewis Baltz: Prototypes/Ronde de Nuit

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through July 2011

July 2011 was a banner month for exhibit closings here in DC. I don't know if it's just coincidence, but some months have lots of shows closing, and other months have very few. I felt like I was behind the 8 ball the whole month, trying to get to everything before it was gone for good. Now, however, I'm done with the July offerings, and have August's four shows to see - a far more manageable number!

My final July show was this exhibit of Lewis Baltz photographs. He worked in California in the 1960s and 1970s, and his pictures highlight the increasing homogenization of suburban America. All the photos are in black and white, and the emphasis is on geometric shapes, rather than on the distinguishing features of a location. It's a good thing that there are tags next to each piece, identifying the place, as otherwise you'd have no idea where the picture was taken. I take Baltz' point; America is losing it's distinctive places; everything is becoming bland and uniform. The problem is that this makes for a pretty bland and homogenized show.

Richard Serra and Donald Judd also have pieces in this exhibit. One of the Judd pieces is a plexiglass box, with green light streaming out of it. I can't say I was terribly enthralled with this piece, but at least it was some color.

Ronde de Nuit refers to a mural Baltz did composed of photographs of a French police station. The fragmented picture is meant to represent the fragmented nature of modern society. Again, I see the point, but there's just no story in the mural. Perhaps it's hopelessly unsophisticated of me to want my art to tell me a story, but a bunch of pictures of random wires just don't speak to me.

Verdict: Give this show a miss unless you're a fan of Baltz. There's so much else to run out and see before the end of the month, that this feels like a waste of time.

Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan

Where: The Sackler Gallery

When: through July 31, 2011

Before visiting this exhibit, I attended a lecture sponsored by the Smithsonian, in which one of the Sackler's curators talked about the cave temples, their history, and the work that's been done to determine where certain pieces of their sculpture now residing in Western or Japanese collections originally stood.

A special "thank you" to my friend Yvette for inviting me to the lecture. It took place in the Ripley, in one of their meeting rooms; it was fun to be there after hours and see it in use not just as exhibit space. The Smithsonian sponsors lectures and trips almost every day on a variety of subjects, many related to current shows. It's well worth checking out, if you're looking for something to do that's both fun and educational:

I find antiquities fascinating. It really doesn't matter what the work is, I am mesmerized by extreme age. I remember, when visiting the Louvre, I stood transfixed by the Winged Victory, which dates to about 190 B.C. The idea of seeing something that old is amazing to me; someone worked on that statue so long ago, and now, through everything that's happened in human history, I'm looking at it - I really can't describe how incredible that is.

While the Buddhist cave temples are not quite as old as the Winged Victory, they date from the 500s, so they are plenty old enough to inspire my wonder. The statues remained in their caves from the time they were created until the early 20th century, when Western and Japanese collectors became interested in them. Let the looting begin! Unscrupulous Chinese dealers facilitated the removal of entire statutes and pieces of statues (heads and hands were most desirable), and these pieces were scattered across the globe. Several works ended up in the Freer; others went to the University of Pennsylvania and to many other locations. What is far worse than the breakup of the collection is the fact that often, when the pieces were being removed, they were damaged or destroyed. Beautiful works of art lost forever, due to the greed of a few.

The pieces are just enormous; I can't quite fathom how big some of these statues are, based on the size of the heads. That was one thing I didn't quite get from the lecture, was the enormity of these works. Even if you look at a picture of someone standing next to a statue, it's not quite the same as seeing it for yourself.

I noticed that two of the pieces now in the Freer were originally in the Natural History Museum - that would have puzzled me, had I not been to the National History Museum's exhibit on its own history. With that knowledge under my belt, however, I knew exactly what had gone on.

Perhaps the best part of the exhibit is the "Digital Cave." Researchers have managed to piece together the original locations of many of the works now on display outside of China, and have used digital technology and virtual reality to "put them back." The picture above is from the digital cave - the bright yellow piece is one that has been removed. You sit in a small room and watch on three screens as shots of the walls of the caves are shown, with the removed pieces in yellow in their rightful places. The juxtaposition of 1500 year old statuary and 21st century technology is wild and terrific. Visiting the "Digital Cave" is as close to being in the caves themselves as you can get without a ticket to China. I was reminded of the Chinese idea that a picture of an experience is as good as the experience itself. I'm still not convinced this is true, but I did get a lot out of this show.

In the last room is a group of four large statutes from the southern caves. This group was separated in the early 20th century; three of the pieces went to the University of Pennsylvania and one came to the Freer. They are now together again, at least for a while. Of course, looking at all of these pieces, and contemplating how collectors and museum curators have ripped the caves apart for their own purposes, made me think about my own participation in this process. I go to museums all the time, and look at objects that come from a wide variety of countries. I don't know that all of these items have been acquired in completely legitimate ways. I felt a little guilty, but since I know I'm not going to stop seeing great shows, I decided to put the matter out of my mind. I can console myself that the cave temple pieces are now in places where they will be well cared for, and since the Smithsonian is open to the public, and free of charge, anyone can see them.

Verdict: Really worth while show - if you can catch it today or tomorrow, you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational 2011

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: through July 31, 2011

Every other year, the Renwick displays the works of several artists that it feels are deserving of wider recognition. I went to see the 2009 show, and was delighted with the artist who created knitted superhero costumes. The video of him, wearing one of his creations, in a rocking chair, knitting away, as the 1812 overture played in the background was the highlight of the exhibit for me.

This year's offerings are not so "over the top" as the superhero costumes, which is unfortunate, but are still quite good. Ubaldo Vitali is a silversmith, and I was much taken with his 25th Anniversary Tea and Coffee Service, which uses lovely red accents to set off the silver. There is an Art Deco feel to these pieces which I liked very much.

Cliff Lee is a surgeon turned potter, whose work features beautiful, colorful glazes; my favorites were the oxblood, the chun blue and the imperial yellow.

Judith Schaechter makes stained glass windows with macabre themes. If one of the artists was really wild, it would be her. She went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as a small child, and sought out the most gruesome paintings to examine. I liked her work very much, but I'm not certain I'd really want it in my house...

Finally, Matthais Pliessing makes furniture by steam bending wood. The shapes are wonderful, but as one is not allowed to sit on the chairs or sofas, I'm not sure how comfortable it is.

At the end, there's a small gallery where you can actually touch the art - I always love this; you get a real sense of the pieces if you can put your hands on them.

Verdict: Go see this show. It's always great to see artists that are not yet big stars, and the Renwick itself is a very nice, uncrowded destination.

“So Much Need of Service” – The Diary of a Civil War Nurse

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through July 29, 2011

I think my favorite part of the American History museum is the Small Documents Gallery. It's generally not too crowded, as it's located down an unattractive hallway that screams "Staff Only." It also tends to focus on written materials, and not the latest technological marvels, although they have certainly made use of computer technology to expand their exhibits. The fact that it's tucked away and low-tech appeals to me, and if I'm often one of a select few in the room, that's even better.

The current exhibit is one about a woman, Amanda Akin, who, at age 35, left her home in New York to become a nurse at a hospital in DC during the Civil War. The hospital in which she served is no standing; it was located where the Air and Space Museum sits now.

At that time, nursing was not a profession, so you learned how to care for patients on the job. Frightening thought both for the would-be nurses and the patients! Those who were white and upper or middle-class were called nurses, others were given various, less exalted titles (cook, laundress, matron), but did many of the same jobs.

Akin kept a journal during her year as a nurse and corresponded regularly with her family. These writings formed the basis for a book she wrote years later about her experiences. The exhibit includes a copy of her book, and one volume of her journal (the other volumes appear to have been lost). She noted that she had "forgotten how to feel" as a result of seeing so much suffering around her, and that she felt "entirely separated from the world I left behind." Understandable, when you consider the stress of caring for severely wounded men, and the length of her days.

Verdict: As with all shows in the Documents Gallery, it's short enough to make a fine lunchtime outing, and Akin's story is a compelling one. Worth a look in.

Black Box: Laurent Grasso

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through July 24, 2011

As much as I dislike the Hirshhorn in general, I must admit that their Black Box series of videos has been quite good. Perhaps my favorite of the set was the film of the flooding McDonald's, but I've gotten something out of everything I've seen.

There are two videos running at present, both by Laurent Grasso. The one showing on the large screen is called Polair and is of East Berlin, covered by floating fluff. It forms a sort of haze over the city, obscuring one's view. One waits for it to clear, but one waits in vain. My guess is that it's meant to remind the viewer of cobwebs, symbolizing the death of Communism. For me, I was reminded of the floaters that sit in my eyes, making it hard to concentrate on white expanses of paper or computer screen, but I can't imagine that's a universal reaction.

The second video is showing on a small television set and is called Les Oiseaux. It depicts a flock of birds, flying in perfect formation against the backdrop of a gorgeous sunset and then over the Vatican. I found the video beautiful when it was just the birds and the sky, but somehow a menacing atmosphere arose when the birds flew past buildings - perhaps I'm thinking of Hitchcock's The Birds?

Verdict: Not the best of this series, but still worth a look. The Hirshhorn's website indicates that this exhibit lasts through August 14, so there may be a bit more time to see it.

Gabriel Metsu, 1629–1667

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through July 24, 2011

Gabriel Metsu is Vermeer without the hype. This is how I described this show to a friend. If you like Dutch masters, don't miss this exhibit. It's a small show, so easily seen in a lunch hour, and it's on the ground floor of the East Building, so no trek up to the Tower. Best of all, Metsu is relatively unknown, so no need to get tickets or stand in line for hours.

As seen in this picture, there are plenty of paintings of Dutch people sitting by windows, so the light shines in on them, and they are lovely. The painting that really caught my eye, however, was a quite dark picture of a smithy's shop. The shoe on which the smith was working was painted such a vibrant shade of orange, that it appears to be lit from within, really an impressive effect.

One of Metsu's best known paintings is a self-portrait entitled Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing. It is an unforgiving self-portrait, one sees Metsu, lumps and all. Made me think that perhaps this was the 17th-century version of tweeting one's junk.

Dogs appear in almost every painting. An Old Couple Feeding Their Dog gave me pause - "here is my future life," I thought, although the calm dog waiting for its food is no great model of my two, running around and barking at the thought of their dinner.

Verdict: Well worth a trip; it closes tomorrow, so don't delay.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Orchid in Chinese Painting

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 17, 2011

This is a companion exhibit to the Natural History Museum's orchid show that I reviewed earlier. I took the same friend to see this show that I took to see the earlier one, and while this small display lacked some of the visual "pop" of the live orchids, it was lovely nonetheless.

The orchid has long been associated in Chinese culture with the man of high moral values who goes unrecognized by those in positions of authority. The flower's fragrant blossoms are hidden in the long tapering leaves, just as the value of the virtuous man is hidden by his reluctance to put himself forward in violation of his principles.

One of the first paintings we saw was by Luo Ping, who drew ink orchids with the tips and nails of his fingers - the result does have the look of fingerpainting. The act of simulating natural settings on a reduced scale was believed by the Chinese to have the same revitalizing effect as an actual journey. I was reminded of the habit of the scholar gentlemen in displaying winter scenes in summer (and vice versa) in order to cool (or warm) the viewer. I'm not sure that merely looking at paintings of natural beauty is the same as actually experiencing it, but I suppose it's better than nothing. Besides, I get great joy out of my trips to the museums, and isn't that much the same thing?

I was quite impressed with Orchid & Fungus of Immortality by a Torrent by Hu Jiusi - the colors are still vibrant and lovely after almost 200 years.

Verdict: The show closes today, so I hope you had a chance to see it while it was here. Easily managed in a lunch hour - one could combine this with another small show in the same visit.

Close to Home: Photographers and Their Families

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through July 24, 2011

The photographs in this exhibit are all of family members of the photographers. It's a way to see something personal about the artists. You don't get the unstudied personal information you would see in a quick snapshot, as these are carefully composed pictures, but because the subject matter is the artist's family, something of their background and personal lives is revealed.

Regardless of the relationship of the photographer to the subject, this show has some very fine pieces. The sequence of photographs of the artist's mother, who is suffering from dementia, is particularly fine; one example is the picture above. The mother looks dead to me, which perhaps reflects my view that the mind is all; the body is a mere container for thoughts, feelings, ideas. Interestingly enough, the photographer, Virginia Beahan, reported that her mother really responded to being photographed, as she liked the attention. If that's the case, I can't imagine how much less lifelike she would have been when she wasn't the center of attention.

The pictures of Margaret Strickland's sister in Valdosta, Georgia were quite striking. I felt as if I could write a novel about their lives, just from the few pictures I saw. Not that they were of such momentous occasions, but they gave a sense of their lives, particularly one taken on her grandmother's porch. There seems to be tension in the family; there's a certain desperation in her sister's face that makes the viewer wonder.

Verdict: Go see this show - the photographs are quite good, and the fact that the subject is the artists' families gives them a "pulling back the curtain" quality.

Collections Frozen in Time: Selections from the National Gallery of Art Library

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through July 24, 2011

There's a small room in the National Gallery's West Building, on the ground floor, that houses little exhibitions pulled from the Gallery's library. There's very little fanfare attached to them, and I'm usually the only person in the room, unless some other visitor stumbles on the gallery accidentally. Being a librarian myself, I find these rather interesting, and if I'm alone in my interest, frankly, that's a selling point as well. The National Gallery, although in no way as crowded as the Air and Space Museum, can get pretty full, especially in the summer, and a respite from my many art-loving fellows is not to be sneezed at.

This collection deals with catalogues of private collections. They were a way for people to show off to others what they owned, whether books or art, and have become, in many instances, the only way to know what was owned by whom. One page of a royal catalogue features an entire page of drawings of paintings, not unlike the Morse painting, which I saw on the same trip and have reviewed previously. I was also struck by the Wunderkammer, the Cabinet of Curiosities, which reminded me strongly of the Natural History Museum's storage cabinets.

Verdict: Well worth a look, and it can easily be combined with a trip to another exhibition in one visit.

A New Look: Samuel F. B. Morse's Gallery of the Louvre

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through July 8, 2011

This painting was on display for only a very short period of time, and if it hadn't been for an article in the Post during its stay, I would have missed it entirely.

Little did I know, but Samuel Morse, who I knew merely as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code (as if that weren't sufficient accomplishments for one lifetime), started out as a painter. Now granted, he wasn't a great success as an artist, which is why he turned to other pursuits, but he was skilled enough to produce this painting of a gallery in the Louvre.

It's a real room, but he's placed his favorite paintings and sculpture in it, replacing the room's actual contents. He's also put himself and his friends in the gallery; one of his friends is the author James Fenimore Cooper. The Post article made much of the fact that the lone Europeans in the painting are a woman (wearing a delightfully ridiculous hat - really, is there anything better than humorous headgear?) and a child leaving the gallery, as if to suggest that Europe was being driven out of its hallowed halls by Americans. I'll grant you, Morse and his friends do look a noisy bunch, enough to drive any serious student of art to another, less crowded gallery, but there could be any number of reasons for the woman to leave. Perhaps her child has had her fill of art and now wishes to have ice cream? I've heard many similar conversations in my trips to the National Gallery.

The Post also criticized Morse's rendition of the Mona Lisa, saying it wasn't as good as the Da Vinci original. Granted, it's not, but that's an awfully high bar to set, especially since the Mona Lisa in this painting is quite small. I think he did a pretty good job of copying the work - certainly, it's recognizable, which I think is the point. The display of paintings, one on top of another, from floor to ceiling is quite authentic. When I visited the Louvre, I saw several galleries with the same type of arrangement. I don't care for it - I find I can't concentrate on anything, as there are just too many paintings to see. Also, being rather short, I find it almost impossible to see the paintings at the ceiling, and I wind up with a very stiff neck. Paintings at eye level are just fine with me; I'm glad the fashion in museum displays changed.

It occurred to me that it would be rather fun to make a list of all the art works in the painting and see them all - a sort of artistic scavenger hunt.

Verdict: Well worth a look, and I was able to see the painting right after reading the Post review, so I had it fresh in my mind when I was at the Gallery.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Americans Now

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through July 10, 2011

This show made me think about the difficulty inherent in collecting modern portraits: who will merit a portrait here in 100 years, and who will have been consigned to history's dustbin? Obviously, Barack and Michelle Obama will be remembered long after all of us looking at this exhibit are gone, but what of the others in this show?
I think Maya Angelou is pretty likely to be remembered; LL Cool J, perhaps not. Likewise, Willie Nelson - yes; George Strait - no.

In addition to playing this guessing game with the portraits, the wide variety of media used to make portraits is incredible. The Wall Street Journal's hedcuts get a mention; interestingly, this method of portraiture allows the newspaper to take pictures from many sources, even if the quality of the original image is not that good.

A self-portrait of Chuck Close was quite remarkable, in that the only way to see the stretched out image properly is to view it as a reflection in a cylindrical mirror. Too cool. There were also videos of various people who were put in a cube for 1 hour to do something of personal interest. These were done by Lincoln Schatz as part of Esquire's Portrait of the 21st Century.

I also noticed a piece called "Late Night Triad." It's three screens showing blurry videos of Leno, Letterman and Conan. Supposedly, you can't decipher their faces, but I recognized them immediately. I think there was meant to be an audio portion of this, but it sounded only like random buzzing.

Also notable was a portrait of Ben Bernanke made up entirely of pieces of one dollar bills - a bit obvious, perhaps, but still, cut up pieces of money are probably pretty tough to work with, so I have to hand it to the artist, Mark Wagner - he did a good job.

Finally, there is the Obama Hope poster by Shepard Fairey. Now that the election seems so far away, and things have become so complicated, even for Obama's supporters, I find I view that poster with some melancholy, along with the feeling of "yes, we can."

Verdict: A very interesting show, and one I recommend. It's not terribly large, so plenty manageable for a lunch hour.

Perspectives: Lu Chunsheng

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 17, 2011

The Sackler periodically features the work of an Asian artist in its entrance hall; this is their "Perspectives" series. I've seen one other (not sure if they've had more, or if it just started) - Hai Bo, which I enjoyed very much. I like the fact that I don't have to spend any time looking for the exhibit, as I'm limited in my viewing time, so having something in the entrance hall is fine by me.

This is a video entitled "History of Chemistry, Vol. 1." In it, four men dressed as sailors emerge from the sea and start walking. They walk across rocks, across a wasteland, they fall down in a meadow, apparently only sleeping, as they get back up and do more walking, eventually stopping in a nasty industrial area where they meet others. I watched this for quite a while (20 minutes at least) and finally gave up on it. I'm sure this is a powerful statement about something, but about what I have no idea. I'll be back at the Sackler before this closes, so perhaps on my way to see other shows, I'll be able to get more out of this video. Frankly, I'm not going to hold my breath.

Verdict: I'm perfectly willing to watch odd videos with no dialogue and make what sense I can out of them, but this one was beyond my comprehension.

Contemporary Japanese Ceramics

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 5, 2011

This is a wonderful little show, an example of some gorgeous ceramics being made today. The vibrant colors are marvelous, and if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know how much I love bright colors in art. The example displayed here is typical of what you can expect.

The show is on the bottom floor of the museum, so much of your time will be spent getting down to it and getting back up to street level again. The exhibit itself is quite small and in a sort of hallway leading to the Ripley.

Contemporary ceramicists in Japan are using all of this wonderful color to designate the place of origin of their work. They are making larger forms and use larger designs than their traditional artistic forebears. The pieces are quite impressive, both in size and design. Two that particularly caught my eye were a blue and white bowl with just gorgeous cobalt blues, and a large vase, designed to imitate the look of sunlight on water - lighter colors, with lots of yellow, at the top, then darker colors, getting increasingly blue at the bottom. I looked at that piece for quite a while, in awe of the talent on display.

Verdict: If you've got time tomorrow, go see this show - it's very small, so quite do-able in a lunch hour and well worth your time.