Saturday, August 27, 2011

Little Pictures, Big Lives: Snapshots from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through October 3, 2011

The display area of the Archives of American Art is a room on the 1st floor of the American Art Museum, and because the space is fairly small, it's a great lunchtime excursion.

This display highlights the snapshots found in the papers and effects of American artists. They made photograph albums and carried around informal photos of friends and family, and this display puts many of these items together for public view. The description of the exhibit said that there is "a charm in capturing even the simplest of scenes," and I agree.

The snapshot album of Alexander Archipenko, a Russian sculptor, reminded me strongly of albums of my mother's. The careful labeling of pictures and the little corners stuck onto all of the photos were much the same. I suppose people don't really do this much anymore - everyone's pictures are on their phones or computers or in various emails.

I saw several photos of Alexander Calder, whose very interesting portrait exhibit just ended at the Portrait Gallery. I can see that the more exhibits I attend, the more overlap there will be between one show and another. A picture of the artist Walt Kuhn taken in 1911 in Ogunquit, Maine caught my eye. My husband and I visited Ogunquit once, and although the snapshot is now 100 years old (amazing a little snap could last that long), the view is not much changed.

Another quote from the notes that took my fancy: "As much as photographs appear to be a tissue of memory, they are also projections of all that we want to believe about ourselves and our connectedness to others." Photographs are faithful records of a moment in time, but how much that moment is reflective of the truth of our lives is another matter entirely.

Verdict: Do go see this small show. It's an easy lunchtime outing, and you'll probably have the space to yourself.

Artists at Work

Where: Ripley Center

When: through October 2, 2011

This show, on the walls of the concourse on the Ripley's 3rd floor, is a display of works of art by people who work for the Smithsonian. Some are full-time employees, others are interns, still others are volunteers. It's amazing to me how incredibly talented these people, most of whom are not professional artists, are. I don't think an exhibit of artwork by myself and my co-workers would be worthy of display anywhere, let alone at the Smithsonian.

Several pieces that caught my eye:

  • Jooseal Lee's Nostalgia (Paper Clothes) was three dresses, made of paper, hanging on hangers on the wall. There was something creepy about the piece - those dresses in tatters, as if something sinister had happened to them.
  • Laura Erekson's Lake Audubon - Erekson is an intern at the Hirshhorn, nevertheless, I liked her piece, a black and white of a lake with trees. I had to look closely to see where the sky ended and the water began.
  • Doug Dunlop's Alchemical Consciousness - Dunlp is a metadata librarian, which I think means he works in cataloging. I wanted to like this piece, as he's a fellow librarian, but I couldn't quite manage to.
  • Patrick Rizer's Orchids - a lovely piece in copper and bronze, it reminded me of the orchid exhibit I'd seen recently at the Sackler.
  • Huston Dove's Untitled - despite the name, it's an interesting picture of water cascading out of the dam at the Prettyboy reservoir. Dove is a cataloger at the Smithsonian Library.
Verdict: It's a fairly large show, as shows tend to be at the Ripley, so allow plenty of time to look at everything. Well worth a trip, not just for the art, but also to appreciate the many talents of the people who bring us so many worthwhile things at the Smithsonian.

In the Tower: Nam June Paik

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through October 2, 2011

I decided on my recent visit to the East Building's Tower exhibit space that it really functions as a mini-Hirshhorn. Everything that's really weird goes in there. Accordingly, I have lowered my expectations for the exhibits I see in the space, although I'm still miffed by the idea that I have to climb so many steps to see the weirdness; that's one thing you can say for the Hirshhorn, they don't wear you out until you're actually in the exhibit.

This offering, by the Korean artist, Nam June Paik, is plenty odd. There's one room that holds a lighted candle - an actual candle with an actual flame. The flame being real, it flickers, as flames do. This is captured by a camera, hooked up to multiple projectors which show the candle all over the walls of the room. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that all of the candles are really the same flame - some of the projections are at angles or upside down. Also in this room is an egg sitting on a table, which is also projected on a screen next to the actual egg. Then, next to that, is another projector with an egg inside it. It's very difficult to describe, but rest assured, it's as goofy as I'm making it sound.

All of this I can handle; yes, it's odd and over the top, but what the heck, it's not like I'm thinking of projecting images of candles on the wall - more power to him, I say. In the next room, there's a 19th century Chinese scroll with a illuminated red hand on it that blinks on and off - fine with me. What I do object to is the display of the artists' doodles and random scrawls. If he was passing these off as art, then truly there's a sucker born every minute. One person's scrawls are no more artistic than another person's in my view - perhaps this is because I'm not making a fortune selling my scrap paper to the National Gallery.

Also in this second room is a video about the artist and his partnership with a female cellist. He created a TV bra that she wore while playing the cello - the original boob tube, as he described it.

Verdict: If you need some exercise anyway, have a look at this exhibit. I enjoyed sitting in the room with the candles, but the scrawls are just irritating.

Glimpse of the Past: A Neighborhood Evolves

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 25, 2011

Although this is listed as being at the Portrait Gallery, it's really not - it's right in the middle of the museum, so neither Portrait Gallery nor American Art. I guess you could say it's a portrait of a neighborhood? The show features pictures and narrative about the Penn Quarter, the part of downtown DC that's between Pennsylvania Avenue and Chinatown. It happens to be the neighborhood where I work, so it held particular interest for me. Well do I remember the days when you hurried through the streets in daylight and didn't go there at all at night. My friends and I referred to this area as the peruquerie district, as it contained so many seedy wig shops.

In the early part of the 20th century, however, the area was thriving. Looking at the pictures from that time period, it was easy to recognize the blocks I walk down every day - the stores were different, but the atmosphere was similar. Suburbanization and the riots that occurred after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King led to the decline of the area, and by the time I first arrived in the city in the early 1980s, it was a very undesirable location. The pictures from that time were much harder to identify - the buildings were the same as they are now, but they all looked nasty - either boarded up or housing unsavory businesses.

There was a chromolithograph of the Patent Office, that looks just the same as it does today. Pierre L'Enfant had originally intended that the space be used for a national cathedral or pantheon of American heroes - the more pragmatic Americans of the time decided on a building to house the Patent Office instead. Amazingly, Congress considered tearing the building down on two occasions - when I think of the many happy hours I've passed in this building (it's now the home of the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum) the thought is too dreadful to contemplate. Luckily, the first time demolition was contemplated, the local merchants were pacified with a widening of F Street, which necessitated the removal of a large staircase. The second time, in the 1950s, President Eisenhower was persuaded by David Finley, the director of the National Gallery of Art, to turn the building to its present purpose. I was heretofore ignorant of your role in enriching my life, Mr. Finley, but please accept the thanks of this grateful blogger!

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, senator from New York, was also instrumental in revitalizing the Penn Quarter area. He worked under four presidents to put forth his plans for rebuilding the neighborhood - I'm sure he would be delighted to see it so vibrant today. The exhibit contains a wonderful bronze of Moynihan, done by Pat Oliphant, which is worth the trip to the show all on its own. It really captures his expression and energy.

I also discovered that several historic buildings were demolished to make way for the MLK Library, which is described as a "decrepit eyesore." I could not agree more with this assessment - what that structure needs is a can of gasoline and a lit match. It stands out in the neighborhood like a sore thumb, and is ugly and depressing to look upon. One can only hope that in some future redesign, it will go the way of the buildings it replaced.

Verdict: If you have any interest at all in the Penn Quarter neighborhood, or DC history in general, do go see this small display. It's easily seen in a lunch hour, even if you dawdle!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Capital Portraits: Treasures from Washington Private Collections

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 5, 2011

Most of the pieces in this show have never been exhibited before, as they reside in private collections. People have inherited these pieces, or purchased them for their artistic merit or sat for them, but none of them belong to museums. The time periods displayed run through the colonial period through to the present day, and one gets a look at the changes in portraiture along with the portraits themselves.

One that caught my eye was of a family of women, a Mrs. Church, her daughter and her daughter-in-law. They are pictured sitting together, the daughter-in-law handing Mrs. Church a letter, which family history suggests was information that Mrs. Church's son, the daughter-in-law's husband, was in fact not her husband at all. He had been proved a bigamist, as his divorce from his first wife was never finalized. Why, I wondered would one wish to have this moment painted?

Another piece was of Phoebe Caroline Elliott Pinckney - I was struck by her resemblance to Jacqueline Kennedy. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, was it the expression, the smile, the eyes? Whatever it was, I found the likeness uncanny.

I also saw a sculpture by Hiram Powers, whose scultpure The Greek Slave was much discussed in the exhibit notes for the Capitoline Venus - nothing like having one's lessons reinforced.

Another piece of interest is a small picture of Mamie Eisenhower, done by Dwight Eisenhower. It's not great art, but he managed to get her expression very well, and isn't that what portraiture is all about?

Verdict: A nice show, but quite large. In order to do this in a lunch hour, you'll have to resist the urge to dawdle.

Declaration of Independence: The Stone Copy

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through September 5, 2011

On the same day I went to see the Capitoline Venus, I also went to see this copy of the Declaration of Independence. It was created at the request of then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams
(who was not, contrary to current popular belief, a Founding Father). Adams realized that the original Declaration was showing signs of age and wear, and asked William J. Stone to create a facsimile. Of the 200 copies of this facsimile that were made and distributed to the living signers and other government officials, only 31 still survive.

Stone's original engraving is what is on display, in a small room filled, appropriately enough, with portraits by Gilbert Stuart, including pictures of the first five Presidents of the United States. Although the Continental Congress ordered that a large and legible copy of Jefferson's manuscript be made, I must say, reading the text was quite challenging. At my eye level were the signatures, and the famous and the forgotten are mixed in together, with John Hancock's name prominently at the top. Seeing this document, one remembers that the signers were taking their lives in their hands, and one is thankful they were willing to do so.

Verdict: Do make time to see this; although it's more history than art, it's a lovely item. Seeing this document and the Venus is quite easily managed in a lunch hour, and one will come away feeling it was time well spent.

A Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome: The Capitoline Venus

Where: National Galley of Art, West Building

When: through September 5, 2011

For the first time since 1797, when it was seized by Napoleon and taken to Paris, the Capitoline Venus has left Rome. Happily, its current journey is a loan, rather than a heist, and it will return safely to the Capitoline Museum when its visit here is over.

The Capitoline Venus is one of the best preserved examples of Roman art in the world; it dates from the 2nd century AD. Found in the 1670s buried under a garden, it was in very good condition. It really is amazing how art can survive upheavals and cataclysms to delight viewers hundreds of years later.

The statue itself is beautiful, so lifelike you expect it to climb down from its plinth and walk about. There is much to appreciate here, both in its antiquity and in the talent of the sculptor.

I'm happy to report that, although the mad woman who attacked a Gaugin painting earlier in the summer returned to the National Gallery recently and tried to damage a Matisse, she apparently did not realize a naked statue was on display in the main rotunda. I understand from the newspaper accounts that she is now under lock and key, so our nation's collection of priceless art is safe from her insanity, at least for the moment.

Verdict: Do not miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this tremendous piece. I think it's marvelous that the Italians have lent the Venus to the National Gallery, and it was wonderful to see it.

Directions: Grazia Toderi

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through September 5, 2011

Well, off I went again to the Hirshhorn, and yet again, I came away shaking my head. This exhibit features two video projections by Grazia Toderi, an Italian artist, and I'm not sure I really understood either of them.

One is called Orbite Rosse, and it seems to be a nighttime cityscape: lots of lights in the darkness. The description compared it to landing at an airport at night but since the viewer never gets closer to the city, that comparison falls apart after a few minutes watching. You see the city through two large ovals, that are much like looking at something through binoculars. There are rings of stars that circle through every so often - lots of bright lights generally, but nothing much going on.

The second projection is called Rosso Babele, which is apparently a reference to the Biblical Tower of Babel. It's meant to show the futility of architecture in connecting the earth to the heavens, a point I do appreciate. The description posits that the Internet is the only human construct that "literally connects earth to sky." How does it do that exactly? I declare myself mystified. For a hilarious description of what literally means, see this Oatmeal cartoon: The projection, pictured above, features two screens, one upside down, that are collections of lights and redness. There are helicopter noises and bursts of light, but that's about it. Oh yes, those circles of stars are back.

Verdict: It won't take long to watch these; I spent about 15 minutes total, and felt like I got a pretty good idea of what was going on. I didn't get much back for my time investment, however, so you may want to give this a miss.

Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop & Turn

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through September 5, 2011

This is an exhibit put on by the Smithsonian Institution libraries; they have a nice little space next to the Archives cases on the first floor of the museum. As I think I've mentioned before, I put together many library displays in a former job, so I like to go and see what the librarians and archivists have on offer, if for no other reason than to let them know that someone's interested. I need not have worried about lack of attendance for this exhibit - its was quite crowded when I visited, perhaps due to the time of year?

In addition to seeing many really neat pop-up books, I learned several things about this craft. Did you know that pop-up books are 800 years old? Neither did I, but now we both know. At the front of the show, you can push a button and turn the pages of two different pop-up books - lots of fun, and not just for the kids. And there are not only pop-up books - there's a whole assortment of books on display that open up, fold, and otherwise move. I was much taken with a tunnel book - you look through small circles in the front of the tunnel, and see different parts of the picture behind. It's hard to describe, but fun to see.

Lest you think pop-up books are only for children, think again. Euclid's Geometry features pop-ups, and that's no Dr. Seuss. I saw a copy of Peter and Wendy See the New York World's Fair and was reminded of the Building Museum's world fair exhibit. I still think charging admission is a bad idea on their part...

All movable and pop-up books are assembled by hand, even today. Perhaps if we all read a few more, we could add a few jobs to the economy? I like to see real craftsmanship and outside of a craft fair, one sees little enough of it. This exhibit is not just a collection of kids' books, but a genuine art show.

Verdict: Don't miss this. It's easily managed in a lunch hour, and well worth the time you'll spend.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through September 5, 2011

I wasn't terrible excited about seeing this show; I had the idea it would be depressing and uninteresting. I'm happy to report that I was wrong, and that I quite enjoyed my visit.

George Ault, an artist with whom I was unfamiliar prior to seeing this exhibit, moved from Manhattan to Woodstock, NY in 1937, in part to get away from an increasingly troubling world and to bring some sense of order to the chaos that was taking over. When I read this, I was reminded of a woman with whom I used to work, who left DC and moved to Vermont after 9/11, feeling a need for greater security. It's not a choice I have made in my life, but I understand the impulse.

The show features Ault's work, along with pieces by several of his contemporaries. One, Flag Station, by Harry Leith-Ross, has a quote from Alistair Cooke in its description, extolling the "rare beauty of stasis." I've often felt that the normal day, where nothing much happens, is a marvelous thing, and vastly underrated by those who seek constant stimulation. Nothing like a little boredom to help you re-charge your batteries to deal with whatever life will thrown at you next.

Ault was described as a poet of empty places, and the paintings of Russell's Corners, including the piece pictured above, show the same scene, devoid of people. Daylight at Russell's Corners is a wonderful winter tableau - you can feel the cold as you look at it.

I also admired his Brook in the Mountains. You can see the great power of the water flowing , but it is controlled. The note next to the piece indicates that this is meant to show the value Ault placed on emotional control, and regardless of whether that's true or not, it make me wonder if the ability to keep a cool head and not shout out one's every thought is valued in American society any longer. Having just watched a couple of the Sunday talk shows, I'm inclined to think not.

One of the exhibition notes puts forward the idea that Ault told no stories in his art. Is that really true? Granted, you don't have the story laid out for you - it's not as if you've got a scene of people interacting in some way, or some picture of a historical event, but I think that just provides more room for the viewer to create his or her own story.

Verdict: Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed this show. It's large, but not so large that you can't see it in a lunch hour.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Fragments in Time and Space

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through August 28, 2011

This show is made up of pieces from the Hirshhorn's own collection and focuses on how artists have explored time and space in their work. As arts funding has decreased during the recession, many museums have turned to putting on shows comprised of pieces from their own permanent collections. I can imagine the cost of putting up such a show would be considerably less than arranging for shipment of works of art from other locations, and it allows visitors to see pieces they might otherwise miss, or see them in a new context. Clearly, an example of receiving lemons and making lemonade.

Of course, this is the Hirshhorn, so you know going in that there will be at least one ridiculous piece in the show. The first one is in the first room (may as well begin as we mean to go on); it's entitled Oct. 24, 1971, and it's a sign with that date on it. That's the whole work. It's one of a series of these signs with dates on them - three appear in the show. I practically had to pry my eyeballs loose from the top of my head.

Something I'll mention that I often see at exhibits, and I haven't written about so far, are the helpful guards. I wandered into a room full of seascapes (very nice - see below for description), and a guard approached to warn me about the riser in front of the photographs that was very hard to see in the darkened room (what is it about the Hirshhorn and their desire to show everything in the dark?). He also directed me to the description of the series of photos on the far wall. Really pleasant and helpful - thank you!!

The seascapes themselves were quite nice, actually. They are simply water and sky, each photo divided in half. I liked them, although it did make me realize how much I enjoy a bit of greenery about my water. It makes me feel as if I'm standing on shore, looking at the view, as opposed to being in the water, desperate for shore. The Post had an article in its weekend section on Friday discussing several "eye-popping" works of art in the area, and this set of photos was one of the pieces listed.

The piece from which the picture above is taken is a video called Play Dead; Real Time by Douglas Gordon. It's a video of a circus elephant repeatedly performing a trick; one feels sorry for the poor creature. It looks tired and sad. Always a dangerous matter to assign human emotions to animals, I know, but I really couldn't watch it for very long. It's on multiple large screens in one of the room, and on a small television screen in the corner of the room.

By this point, I remembered one of my other criticisms of the Hirshhorn: the enormity of their exhibits. Why must the pieces be so spread out that you feel as if you've completed the Bataan Death March by the time you've seen them all? I'm no fan of the style of exhibits that hangs dozens of pieces on each wall, one atop the other - I feel as if I can't get a sense of any of them - but this was just too spread out; nothing seemed to have any context or relationship to anything else.

Towards the end of the show, there was a video of a pig farm done by John Gerrard. I remember seeing this piece before, along with a few other video pieces - they incorporate virtual reality into the videos. It's less boring to watch then you'd think, and I felt a sense of satisfaction that I recognized the piece. A series of photographs by David Claerbout entitled Sections of a Happy Moment caught my eye. I love the title, and the photos were of kids playing in what appeared to be a schoolyard or neighborhood playground. Rather melancholy music was attached to it, with which I could have dispensed. I also liked Niagara by Wolfgang Staehle, a beautiful picture of rushing water.

Verdict: I've seen worse shows at the Hirshhorn! It's very large, so don't dawdle if you're on your lunch hour. Some of the pieces are quite interesting, and others aren't worth the paper they're painted on, but overall, it's worth a look.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Calder’s Portraits: A New Language

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through August 14, 2011

When I think of Alexander Calder, I think of mobiles or large abstract sculptures. He was, however, a prolific portraitist. He constructed pictures of friends, colleagues and famous persons out of wire; you could think of them as small sculpture-like drawings.

In the first room, you see portraits he did of the owner and director of the Weyhe Gallery, where he had his first show. Those are interesting, but I was more intrigued by the portrait of their assistant, who looks quite tired, and is described as having a "glum expression."' I find assistants are often tired and glum, so I suspect this is an accurate picture of her appearance.

Another interesting portrait is that of John Graham, which hangs from the ceiling. It turns slowly in the air conditioning's breeze, so you can see it from all sides. The shadow it creates on the wall turns as well, which is neat to watch.

I also noticed a portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre, which features eyes that look as if they're on springs. You expect them to pop out at you. This may not be the best picture of Sartre, but I think it captures perfectly my feeling when I'm reading him.

A wonderful looking portrait of Josephine Baker is present only in a photograph. Apparently, it belongs to the National Gallery, and is hanging in its East Building. They refused to lend it for this show, in protest over the removal of the Wojnarowicz video from the Hide/Seek show. The drama that goes on in the museum world! Who knew?

Verdict: Go see this show. The portraits are unconventional and interesting - this is not your run-of-the-mill Calder.

Chinamania: Whistler and the Victorian Craze for Blue and White

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through August 7, 2011

This show is downstairs at the Freer, so waste no time walking around the main floor as I did. It's a small show, featuring both examples of blue-and-white Chinese export porcelain and Whistler drawings of same.

Just as Homer Simpson described Germany as the "land of chocolate," so the Victorians viewed China as the "land of porcelain." Whistler viewed the exotic East as far more interesting than the mundane life he was living in London. He became quite enthralled with blue-and-white china, and his efforts to popularize it resulted in such increases in price, that he could no longer afford to purchase it himself.

Apparently Whistler used to have friends over to look at his acquisitions, and his mother is quoted as saying that he thought it was the most beautiful art in the world. Art critics didn't agree with him, but the Victorian public certainly did. Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying that people felt they had to "live up to" their porcelain. I thought about my own collection of china at home, but didn't think any of it required any great moral effort on my part.

Whistler took a commission to paint pictures of a collector's blue-and-white in order to make some money, but he found that it was more artistically valuable than he had anticipated. This sentiment resonated, as I often find myself heading off to shows only because they are on my list, and I find I enjoy them much more than I thought I would. I guess you just never can tell.

Verdict: This show is easily manageable in a lunch hour; in fact you'd have time to look in on the Peacock Room, which is mentioned throughout. There are several lovely pieces of porcelain, and lots of interesting history to accompany them.

Vantage Point: The Contemporary Native Art Collection

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through August 7, 2011

I took the day off today, so had time to see three exhibits that are closing in August. I don't usually blog about the shows I see until several days later, so this is my first experience in "same day" blogging. It's nice to write, knowing that the details are still fresh in my mind. It was also really nice not to look at my watch while at the shows, wondering if it's time to get back to the office.

The first exhibit I went to see was this collection of contemporary Native American Art. It's a large show, up on the Museum's 3rd level. It was a bit difficult to come up with an overall theme to this collection, as it features work from so many different artists. The show is divided into five different subjects, which I didn't commit to memory. I found that I just looked at the pieces and didn't worry about what went with which other piece.

The show featured the works of Kent Monkman, who has an alter ego, Miss Chief. I think of him as a Native American Dame Edna, but I have no idea if he intends his persona to be comic or not, so perhaps the comparison in inapt. He had several photographs of himself as Miss Chief, and I was reminded of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Warrior show I saw at the Ripley not long ago. One of the themes he examines is Native Americans performing for non-Native Americans.

Catherine Nelson-Rodriguez had two pictures, both of them about her crippling depression. She compares it to falling into a well of blackness, which is probably a pretty good description. Luckily, she was able to get help for her condition, although that was not without its horrors as well. Really well done, and touching because they were so obviously authentic.

One artist had beaded over a copy of the Indian Act, which is a Canadian law governing the lives of First Nations people there. When I saw it, I wondered if it could be the Indian Child Welfare Act, which is a U. S. law dealing with adoptions of Native American children. I've used ICWA as a teaching aid in the past, so it was the first thing to spring to mind. This made me realize that there are tensions between Native people and the descendants of European immigrants in Canada, as well as the U.S.

Mespat by Alan Michelson is a video of Newtown Creek, which runs between Brooklyn and Queens. Now terribly polluted, it was at one time home to Native people. The video is shown on a screen made of feathers, which is a nice, over-the-top touch.

Margarete Bagshaw's Sky Rise Dreams also drew my notice, has her work as an almost Art Deco quality, and I love Art Deco. Although an abstract, I could see easily that it's about New York's skyscrapers.

Verdict: Go see this show, if you are interested in contemporary art, Native American art or you just want to see a video shown on feathers. It's big, so be prepared to move through quickly, if you only have a lunch hour.