Sunday, December 30, 2012

Enlightened Beings: Buddhism in Chinese Painting

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through February 24, 2013

Aside from what's on exhibit, I like going to the Freer, because I love the building and the atmosphere of quiet.  I can actually feel my entire body de-stress just by walking in the door.  There's no better time to visit the Freer than over the holidays, as it's fairly empty (as compared with the more popular museums that are jammed with people fleeing their relative-filled houses), and the visitors who are there don't run or shove or yell as they make their way about the rooms.

This exhibit, which focuses on depictions of the Buddha and his closest followers in Chinese painting, is not one of my favorites.  The pieces are quite dark, which makes it hard to appreciate the details of the art.  Also, although they are quite old, I've been spoiled by the "Roads of Arabia" show, and am now impressed only by things that are thousands of years old.

That having been said, it's still worth a trip to see this show, if for nothing else than that it's well laid out, and you get to see several scrolls, which I enjoy.  You only get to see a piece of each scroll, as space does not permit them to unroll the entire piece, but I like their storybook quality, and fancy that if I go to enough shows, I'll get to see everything, just in bits and pieces.

One really old thing on display is a carving of Guanyin (one of the bodhisattavas - enlightened beings who put off their journey to nirvana to aid humans on their own path to enlightenment) made of fossilized mammoth ivory - more than 32,000 years old.  Not that's what I call an antiquity!  The carving is also excellent - amazing detail throughout.

Verdict: If you enjoy the Freer, go see this.  If you're looking for vibrant colors, give it a miss.

Lalla Essaydi: Revisions

Where: National Museum of African Art

When: through February 24, 2013

For this exhibit, we leave behind the world of sub-Saharan Africa and journey to North Africa, specifically to the world of Lalla Essaydi, a Moroccan-born woman who lived in Saudi Arabia before moving to France and eventually to the United States.  The world in which she lived prior to her time in the West was the world of the harem, where opportunities for women were, and continue to be, non-existent.  Her art depicts the limits placed on women - how they are treated as objects and made to "blend in" with the surroundings.  She has said that her art would not be possible without considerable distance from her homeland, and one cannot doubt that this is the case.

Essaydi has achieved considerable international acclaim as a photographer, but is also an accomplished painter and creator of multi-media installations.  All of these are on display here in her first solo exhibition.  Yet again, the Smithsonian has provided me, and all who visit its museums, with the opportunity to see things not on public display before.

In her "Harem" series of photographs (one of which is pictured above), we see one or more women wearing garments that exactly match the painting on the walls.  They are barely distinguishable from their background.  Obviously, this is meant to show how marginalized the women in these situations are, but I was also reminded of a chameleon, a creature who can blend in to escape its predators.  Do the women hide their true natures from their masters, to preserve some sense of themselves as human beings?

Another series of photographs is the "Three Silences of Molinos."  Based on a poem by Longfellow, which extols the virtue of the silence of thought, the silence of speech and the silence of desire, Essaydi compares this idea to the way in which women are treated in her homeland.  I was reminded of sitting in yoga class, being told to quiet my mind.  In this context, there's nothing wrong with not thinking about the day-to-day worries of life in order to focus on the breath, but when you're never allowed to have your own thoughts or opinions on any matter, you can see how stifling this would become.  Women are treated as property and their ideas, their wants, are accorded no value.

In many of Essaydi's photographs, the women have writing on their skin and on their garments.  This is an act of defiance, as women are not allowed to learn calligraphy.  This is a way to demonstrate that women can and will learn and use their intellects to create art and to speak out.

Essaydi not only depicts the suffering of women in her homeland, she also shows the views of Europeans towards the Middle East, not unlike the work of Jananne al-Ani.  Essaydi takes well-known European paintings and reworks them into photographs, featuring "exotic" North African women.  One of her works, a photograph showing another side of "La Grande Odalisque" by Ingres, hangs in the Louvre.

The multi-media installation is called "Embodiment."   It consists of hanging fabrics with her photographs silk-screened on them, and a video showing several small children playing.  This piece is Essaydi's way of dealing with her childhood memories of life in the Middle East.  For all of us, adulthood takes us to another country than that we inhabited as as child, but for her this is more true than for most of us.

The final room of the show focuses on her paintings.  They are reworkings of Orientalist paintings - similar to the earlier set of photographs.  She overturns the idea of the exotic and desirable North African woman who exists only to please men.  Like al-Ani, she makes you consider your assumptions about the Middle East and those who live there.

Verdict:  It's actually hard to look at Essaydi's photographs, knowing that the lives she depicts are real, but the exhibit is excellent and well worth a look.  

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through February 24, 2013

This enormous exhibit uses archeological finds to tell the history of Saudi Arabia from prehistoric times to the present.  This show is filled with antiquities, so if you're as much a fan of these as I am, you won't want to miss this.

Prior to the establishment of Islam in the 7th century, Saudi Arabia was the sole cultivator of incense (including frankincense and myrrh - very seasonal), and roads led from Saudi Arabia to other parts of the inhabited world.  Once Islam had taken hold, the roads led from other parts of the Islamic world to Mecca.  Whether for trade or for religion, Saudi Arabia seems to have been a center of travel in this region for a very long time.

The show is set up chronologically, so we begin thousands of years ago.  In the first room, there are several steles.  I'm not sure if it's the dramatic lighting, or their inherent power, but they make quite an effect.  Archeologists believe that they may have been used in funerary rites - perhaps they are representations of the deceased?  Further on, we see tools, some as old as 1.3 million years.  Amazingly enough, the arrowheads on display look as if they could have come from North America - just goes to show that good ideas are not the possession of only one group of people.

For the first time on public display, we see carvings found by a camel herder in 2010.  These carvings are of animals, and have caused archeologists to re-think the timeline around the domestication of various beasts.  These date to 7000 BCE, and although the carving is not so skillful as others I've seen, the fact that people were taking the time and effort to carve anything so long ago is amazing.  It makes you realize that the desire to create art, something beautiful, just for the sake of looking at it, is universal and not a modern concept.

The show is huge - on two levels and multiple rooms on each floor.  There are pieces from an island off the coast of Saudi Arabia, possibly the original home of the Dilmun civilization, celebrated in Mesopotamian texts, and later located in Bahrain.  There is a discussion of the lost city of Gerrha, more prosperous than other cities of the time, now vanished.  Lovely jewelry shows an Hellenic influence, another result of trade.  Several colossal figures dominate one of the rooms on the lower level; even if you're merely skimming the exhibit, you don't want to miss these.

Verdict: This is a show well worth your time.  If you only have a lunch hour, you'll need to move quickly.  To see everything, you'll need 1.5 - 2 hours, easily.

Shadow Sites: Recent Work by Jananne al-Ani

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through February 10, 2013

This show is a combination of still photographs and two videos.  Al-Ani's work focuses on exploring photography's claim to objectivity, and how people's perceptions of other people or other places are shaped by what they see in photographs.  In 1991, during the first Gulf War, the media portrayed the Middle East as one vast desert.  Obviously, there is a lot of sand in the Middle East, but that's not all there is.  Was it easier for those of us watching from the United States to forget the human cost of this conflict because we didn't really see much of it on TV?  I remember thinking at the time that the depictions of the missiles made them look like video games.

Al-Ani was inspired by this incomplete media coverage of the 1991 war, as well as photographs from the Ernst Herzfeld Papers, which are held in the archives of the Freer/Sackler to create video works examining widely held views of the Middle East.  The photographs in the first room of the show are from the archives.  They depict a striking but desolate landscape, and show very few people.  From these photos, Westerners got the idea that the Middle East was nothing but an arid desert, inhabited by only a few nomads.

The next two rooms contain al-Ani's videos.  The first one is entitled "Guide and Flock."  It's footage of a man in Arab dress walking down a road.  He's carrying a bag,  but we never see what's in it.  There's an inset in the screen, playing another video, this one of a street with a flock of sheep standing beside it.  Every few seconds, traffic goes by.  I'm not entirely sure what this video is trying to show - that there are people and industry in the Middle East, not just dusty roads and sheep?

The second video is "Shadow Sites II."  This is a series of aerial photographs.  The camera is at a distance from them to begin, then gradually moves in closer.  Just as you're about to get a good sense of what's on the ground, a new aerial image appears, and the process begins again.  I watched for a while, but frankly, got a bit tired of never seeing what's in the photo.  Perhaps that's the point?

I won't say I didn't like this show - I just couldn't quite figure out the point.  I was glad to be reminded of my reservations about the first Gulf War coverage, something to keep in mind when I see war coverage today.  Other than that, I'm at a bit of a loss.

Verdict: Not sure that this is worth a trip on its own to the Sackler, unless you're a great fan of aerial photography.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Juliette Gordon Low and the 100th Anniversary of Girl Scouts

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 6, 2013

This is an exhibit that didn't appear in the Smithsonian website list until just this week, so I had yet another reminder that it pays to check the list of closing exhibits frequently.  Happily, I was able to see this and spend the rest of my lunch hour walking through the Downtown Holiday Market, which had set up outside the Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art building.

Yet another 100th anniversary - what a busy year was 1912!

The exhibit is small, only a few pieces in the south rotunda, but interesting nonetheless, especially if you, like me, were at one time a Girl Scout.  The Girl Scouts have 3.2 million U.S. members, making it the largest educational organization for girls in the world.  In addition to this lovely portrait of Low, there is also on display the patent for the original Girl Scout badge, appropriate, since the museum is in the Old Patent Office.

Something that struck me was a quote from the 1920 official handbook, Scouting for Girls.  The purpose of the handbook was "how to get the most out of this wild, free life and how to enjoy it with the least trouble and the most fun."  Now there's a motto to live by.

Verdict: Unless you're a Girl Scout, this probably wouldn't merit a special trip, but if you're in the museum to see something else, it's an interesting way to spend five minutes.

40 under 40: Craft Futures

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: through February 3, 2013

By way of celebrating the Renwick's 40th anniversary, this exhibit celebrates 40 craft artists under the age of 40; it is a look at the future of craft.  The commentary on the exhibit indicates that the theme of the artists is using craft to make a better world.  I'm not sure I picked up that idea from every piece I saw, but I really enjoyed this show, so I'm not going to quibble.

In the first room is an item I can only describe as looking like the love child of a space pod and an upholstered chair.  It's called "Mementos of a Doomed Construct"; the artist is Stephanie Liner.  I found the piece a bit startling; I walked up to it and found there was a mannequin inside, which I was not expecting.  There's also a picture on the wall, placed so that you can see it through the window in the "pod."  It seems as if, all of a sudden, you're surrounded by people.

Other pieces I enjoyed were:
  • "Impressions" by Sebastian Martorana - it looks like a pillow, but is made of marble
  • "E-Waste Project" by Christy Oates - beautiful marquetry
  • "Fibers and Civilization" by Sabrina Gschwandtner - quilts made from films about fiber de-accessioned from the Fashion Institute of Technology library
  • "Knitting is for Pus****" by Olek - an entire room covered in knitted camouflage
I can't finish this post without commenting on the "Enlightenment Room" by Nick Dong.  It's a room; you enter one person at a time.  When you close the door, you can barely see, but take a seat on the "throne" at the back.  I won't describe what happens next, so as not to spoil the experience for anyone planning to attend the show, but it's odd.  I think the Renwick could have done a better job at telling you to go into the room, and they could have set up some sort of indicator to tell you that someone else is in the room.  Also, there's really nothing that alerts you to the fact that there's no "end" to the experience.  It ends when you stand up.  I'm all for crazy, over-the-top art, but I can't say I feel more enlightened...

Verdict:  Well worth the trip over to the White House area.  I always enjoy the shows at the Renwick, and will add this one to my list of fun exhibits.  Plus, you can see the work progressing on the grandstands for the Inaugural parade on your trip.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

In the Tower: Barnett Newman

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through February 24, 2013

I've taken to calling the National Gallery's Tower space "the little Hirshhorn in the sky."  Those of you who know my views on the Hirshhorn will know that's not a compliment.  Up the narrow spiral staircase we go, only to have odd things presented to us as our reward at the top.

The name Barnett Newman was not familiar to me, but when I arrived in the Tower, I realized immediately that I had seen his work before.  I noted in my journal, "Haven't I seen this set of lines on canvas already?"  Indeed I had - these are the "Stations of the Cross," a set I'd seen when they were on display in another exhibit space in the building years before.  These offerings had not improved either with age or with the climb to see them.  When I say they're lines on canvas, I'm not exaggerating for comic effect - that's what they are.  Some of the lines are perfectly straight (I found out in the smaller room that he used tape to make the borders clean, somehow that seems less like art, and more like painting the walls and making sure you don't smudge the woodwork), others are blurred - but there's nothing to suggest the Stations of the Cross, or anything else for that matter.  Much as I dislike naming a painting "Untitled," perhaps that would have been a better name for these.

For these Tower shows, you get one set of pieces in the main room and another set in the smaller room that also serves as an elevator lobby.  It's an awkward space, and must be terribly difficult for the curators to use.  There's a video of Newman being interviewed in the smaller space, which, for fans of his work, would be interesting.  An item that caught my eye was "Yellow Painting"; can't disagree with that description - it's a painting and it's plenty yellow.

Verdict: If you like Newman, by all means, run right out and see this (making sure to take care on the stairs).  Otherwise, do an extra 5 minutes on the treadmill and get your exercise that way.

Modern Lab: The Box as Form, Structure, and Container

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through February 18, 2013

Yet another trip to the Modern Lab, yet another show that leaves me scratching my head.  This one focuses on the idea of the box; as the information at the entrance says, "Art objects do not exist alone; they are subject to accumulation, display and rearrangement."  Indeed, what's more fun than buying things, displaying them and then tweaking the display?  Some of the items in the show were in boxes, some of the items were boxes themselves, but thematically, it seemed a bit weak.  To me, it didn't live up to the promise of the introduction.

I've decided that the Modern Lab is a bit beyond my ken.  I try to go with an open mind, but I find myself thinking, "I don't get it."  The one piece I did examine for several minutes was "Cardboard VII" by Robert Rauschenberg, which is a lithograph on cardboard.  I couldn't quite figure out what it was: was it on cardboard or was it merely a picture of the cardboard?  In parts, it seemed to be one thing and in other parts, it seemed to be the other.

Perhaps the most memorable piece, sadly, not in a good way, was Anthony Caro's "Study for National Gallery Ledge Piece."  People, listen to me, please, this is random doodling.  That's all it is.  It's not a study for anything.  I don't care how famous the artist is, scribbles are not art.

Verdict: Give it a miss - it's a small room of odd items.  The fact that they're all in boxes doesn't really change that.

From the Library Citizens of the Republic: Portraits from the Dutch Golden Age

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through February 3, 2013

Hard as I find it to believe, I'm already seeing exhibits that will be closing in February 2013.  I always try to stay a bit ahead of the closings, so I'm not scrambling to see things at the last minute, but it does make me realize how quickly 2012 is drawing to a close... 

Lots of exhibits closing in February, but none at all so far in March; I know that will change, but still, it's odd to look through the list of shows and see no mention of an entire month.

I combined three small exhibits at the National Gallery into one visit last week; this is the first one I saw.  The Gallery has two spaces in which to display items from their library - one is the library itself in the East Building; the other is a small room in the West Building.  I'm almost always the only person in the West Building area, which, as long-time readers of this blog will know, is an experience I find restful.  I might have benefited from some other viewers this time, as I'm not  entirely sure what I saw.  Based on the title, I'm assuming these are portraits of Dutch people from the 1600s, but other than that, your guess is as good as mine.  Usually, there's some sort of explanation affixed to the wall - I always look for that first whenever I go to see an exhibit, but this time, nothing.  There was a fairly substantial brochure available for visitors to peruse, but I really didn't want to read through pages of closely-written text.  It would have taken me as long to do that as to look at the pictures.

One thing that struck me as I looked at the portraits - it makes no difference how high up in society these Dutch people were, they all looked like shopkeepers.  I'm sure it's simply because I knew they were Dutch that I could see all of them standing behind a counter, offering me fish or fabrics, but there's something in their countenances that makes one think: prosperous merchant.

Verdict: If you miss it, you're not missing anything wildly exciting, unless you're a great fan of Dutch portraiture.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Shock of the News

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through January  27, 2013

This is the other show at the National Gallery's East Wing, sharing space with the Lichtenstein retrospective.  It is nowhere near as large - only three rooms, so if you're thinking you only have time for a smaller show, this will fit the bill nicely.

This is an examination of how artists have used newspaper in their work since 1909.  The date was chosen as a starting point due to two events:  Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his manifesto of the radical art movement, Futurism, on the front page of Le Figaro in that year, and Picasso incorporated a piece of real newsprint in a collage just a few years later, in 1912.  Both a copy of the newspaper and the Picasso collage are on display in the show.

I was struck by how many pieces and artists I'd seen before; it's always a nice sense of accomplishment when I see something I recognize.  There was a piece on display by Man Ray, "Transmutation," which didn't really do anything for me.  Again, I thought to myself, it's okay that you missed that big show of his a few years ago.  One work I did like, more for its bizarre, over the top quality than anything else was Dieter Roth's "Literaturwurst (Daily Mirror)" from 1961.  It's a real sausage, made out of newsprint.

Also on offer was an Andy Warhol that I'd seen in his big show at the National Gallery not long ago, "Study for Flash - November 22, 1963."  I am also certain I'd seen "Oct. 27, 1971" from On Kawara's "Today" series a while back at the Hirshhorn.  Another piece that caught my eye was Laurie Anderson's "New York Times, Horizontal/China Times, Vertical."  She's woven the two papers together, which I can't even imagine how to do without making myself nuts.

John Cage contributed a work called "Eninka 22."  It could just as well have been called "Desk Blotter with Coffee Cup Stain."  I don't care how elaborate his process for creating these works is, they're just not art.

An artist I was quite happy to see again was Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  I saw one of his candy piece works at the "Hide/Seek" exhibit at the Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago and found it very moving.  This time, his work, "Untitled (1991)" was a large stack of pieces of paper, with two articles from the New York Times, one on each side.  Visitors were invited to take one of the pieces, so now I have a permanent souvenir of the show.  It's not often one is allowed to touch the art!

Verdict: Mixed views on this show - some good things, some not so good.  It's worth a look, and only a few rooms.

1812: A Nation Emerges

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 27, 2013

Although I suspect this is the war most Americans would now forget, if asked to list our country's major conflicts, the War of 1812 was an important conflict in American history.  Called the Second War of Independence, this war brought us not only the Star Spangled Banner, but also the figure of Uncle Sam.  It was responsible for a great surge in nationalist feeling among the citizens of the time; they felt themselves to be Americans, distinct from Europe and united as one people in a way they had not before.

It is a myth that the U.S. won this war; in reality it was a draw.  The Americans did get some of the things they wanted in the Treaty of Ghent, an actual copy of which is on display here, thanks to a loan from the National Archives, but they didn't get everything they wanted - some demands were ignored completely.

At the time of the War, the United States was completely unrecognizable - very few people were spread across the states in largely agricultural communities, and transportation was very bad.  There were any number of reasons to avoid going to war, but John C. Calhoun, one of the War Hawks in Congress, declared this conflict a "second struggle for our liberty."  Calhoun, by the way, was the only person to serve as Vice President under two different presidents: John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson - a feat unlikely to be repeated.  Among the many portraits on display in this very large show is one of Lighthorse Harry Lee, hero of the Revolutionary War.  This second war was less kind to him, and he died some years later of wounds suffered in the conflict.  At the time, his son, Robert E. Lee, was only a child.

It's not only portraits on display here; there is, among other objects, a much reduced version of the Jackson statue that stands in Lafayette Park.  My office used to be across the street from the Park, and I saw the statue every day.  It was nice to see it again (I rarely get to that part of town now), if only in tabletop dimensions.  Also on display is a bust of Napoleon, which once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

Another fun fact I learned: Dolley Madison's favorite flavor of ice cream was oyster.  Much as I admire her determination to save Washington's portrait from the invading British, I cannot join with her in her frozen dairy confection preferences.

Verdict:  If you're a history buff or have an interest in the War of 1812, you'll find this show right up your alley.  If not, you may want to skip it or skim, as it's a very large exhibit.  If you look at everything, you'll spend an hour easily.

Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through December 9, 2013

This fantastic exhibit is only running through tomorrow, so run down to the Mall to see this before it leaves for Hong Kong.  Unlike most exhibits, you need a ticket for this show.  They're free of charge and available at the information desk in the Sackler lobby.  You gather there at the appointed time, and get a brief overview of the Chinese caves that you'll see reproduced in a tent in the Sackler garden.  The idea of using caves as places of worship began in India, where Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves can be found.  The trade between India and China brought the practice to China, where hundreds of caves were decorated with Buddhist paintings and statues.

The years have taken their toll on the caves, and visitors are now only allowed in a few of the caves at a time, in order to preserve what art remains.  Scholars from a university in the area have taken incredibly high-quality photographs of the caves and these have been made into part of a multimedia display involving animation, music, recoloring of part of the paintings and more.

Trying to describe this experience is difficult - you really have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate it.  Luckily for those not able to see it this weekend, the Sackler is trying to bring this back to its collection permanently; I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed that they'll be successful.

Verdict:  If the idea of combining antiquities with 21st century technology is appealing, don't miss this show.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through January 13, 2013

Roy Lichtenstein defined, refined and blew pop art wide open during the course of his career.  This first retrospective since his death in the late 1990s covers the major periods of his artistic life which were many and varied.  There's more to Lichtenstein than his cartoons of desperate women.

In 1961, he came up with the idea of making art that imitated comic books, which was quite controversial at the time.  Unlike Andy Warhol, however, he left alone the darker side of American pop culture, preferring to concentrate his efforts on lighter fare, although there is certainly melancholy in his works, as his desperate women demonstrate.

His work, "Look Mickey," pictured above, changed the course of his career, where before he had dabbled in abstract expressionism, from then on, he stuck with his dots and comic book style.  How did he get that dot effect?  It turns out he dipped a dog brush in paint.  This work is part of the first section of the show, "Early Pop."  The second section is "Black & White.  Lichtenstein discovered that when you remove color from a painting, the subject can be harder to identify.  Fan of color that I am, this was not my favorite part of the show.

From there, we move on to "Romance."  This is the Lichtenstein with which I was most familiar - those unhappy women, crying over their faithless boyfriends.  They could be illustrations for a Dorothy Parker short story.  The DC Comics series, "Girls' Romances" and "Secret Hearts" were the sources for these melodramatic works.

At this point in the show, you walk up a flight of stairs (a very narrow, circular staircase that I always take slowly, so as not to fall) to see the fourth section, "Brushstrokes."  Apparently, Lichtenstein had great trouble with brushstrokes, so he decided to make them in a cartoon style.  The most interesting item in this section is a chair and ottoman made of wood, in the style of his brushstroke work.   I was not expecting to see furniture!  The "War" section is just what you think it is - cartoon paintings of war comics.  I confess I didn't realize there were such things, but the basis of his work is the "All-American Men of War" series, again by DC Comics.  His piece "Whaam!" is placed next to a small reproduction of the same scene from the comic.  Lichtenstein's work is more immediate - you feel as if you're in the airplane, blasting the enemy fighter to bits.  Of course, part of this is due to size, but there's an energy in his work that's undeniable.

After "War," we go to "Landscapes," and a lovely respite they are too.  There's an energy in these works as well, but it's not so frantic as the war pieces.  "Sea Shore" was my favorite of this group.  It features lovely blues and has a layered feel to it - very restful after the violence of the previous works.

If you've not gathered this already, this is an enormous show - to do this in a lunch hour, I had to practically run through the rooms.  This is the point at which most of the two-level shows at the National Gallery end.  We've got lots more to see, however, so we move on to other rooms on this upper level.  "Modern" is his take on Art Deco.  Lichtenstein didn't care for it (sacrilege in my view), so he stripped it of its architectural context in order to expose its absurdities. I liked his pieces in the Art Deco style, which brings up an interesting point.  If he's making these works to mock Art Deco, and I like the style and his pieces which remind me of it, am I not missing the point?  Shouldn't I dislike them?  I'll need to give this greater thought, but it gave me pause.

Next up is "Art History," his take on great artists.  He explained that he wasn't denigrating them, but instead imitating only the artists he truly admired.  Among the pieces is  a painting of the Matisse work with the goldfish that I recognized right off.  Also there are several Rouen Cathedrals, a la Monet.  I liked these - you could see the old master and the Lichtenstein both in each piece.

The works called "The Artist's Studio" have not been displayed in one show since their 1974 debut, but they're all together now.  Three of them are in this room, and one is at the entrance to the show, so keep it in mind for when you arrive here. I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking at when I entered, but now I see that they're meant to be paintings of a particular artist's workplace.  The next section is "Mirrors."  At one point, he became obsessed with them.  They are merely paintings of mirrors, so there is no reflection, no depth to them.  There is a thought that this serves as commentary on his work - mere pop offerings with no great artistic merit.  Regardless, they're well done.

Now we move on to "Perfect/Imperfect," the only abstract art in the show.  They depict nothing at all, except geometric shapes.  Lichtenstein said they could serve as art on the walls of a sitcom set.  It made me realize I don't pay any attention to the backdrops on sitcoms, but I will from now on.  The penultimate section is "Nudes"; the comic book women from "Romance" are back, but now their faces are attached to naked bodies.  Okay, but they left me cold, I'm afraid.

The final section is "Landscapes in the Chinese Style," which was amazing.  They are clearly Lichtensteins; the dots are there in every piece, but I might have been walking in the Freer.  The pieces are exactly like things I've seen there, and I was delighted with them.  The love of nature, with tiny figures to show man's place next to enormous mountains or in mighty rivers was there in abundance.  There's even a sculpture, "Scholar's Rock," which reminded me of a show I saw at the Sackler that included rocks used for contemplation by scholars.  "Landscape with Philosopher" and "Yellow Cliffs" were the pieces that caught my eye in this section.

Verdict: A great show - a real must-see.  Note that this is the biggest show I've seen at the National Gallery, so plan on spending more than one lunch hour, or look quickly.

The Confederate Sketches of Adalbert Volck

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 21, 2013

 This small exhibit is the latest in the Portrait Gallery's series of shows dealing with the Civil War.  I'm assuming it's in honor of the War's sesquicentennial (there's a word you don't get to use often).  It's set up in a alcove close to portraits of Civil War figures on the first floor.

Adalbert Volck was a Baltimore dentist with Confederate sympathies.  A German immigrant (as you might have guessed from his name), he was bothered by the Northern slant displayed by all of the newspapers and magazines of the time.  Determined to do something to present the Southern cause in a favorable light, he began drawing sketches under an assumed name.  He collected these in a publication, Sketches from the Civil War in North America.  The core of this publication is on display in this show.

Volck, and others at the time, believed that the North was making war on the South in part for profit.  In one of his drawings, he refers to it as the "Holy War of the Contractors."  Lincoln he portrayed as the devil incarnate - the sketch pictured above is typical.  It's disconcerting to see anything about Lincoln that isn't utterly reverent, especially now that the movie "Lincoln" has just come out.  These pictures are distinctly unflattering.

Southerners, on the other hand, are depicted as pious people, set upon pitilessly by the North.  Jackson's soldiers are drawn with their heads bowed in prayer, brave Marylanders are shown in a boat crossing the Potomac to join the rebels (in a sketch reminiscent of Washington Crossing the Delaware), and residents of Vicksburg, Mississippi are shown hiding out in caves during the siege of that city.  I had no idea people did this, but apparently, this is true, and not just propaganda.  One of his sketches shows Southern citizens giving up their church bells to be melted down and made into cannonballs.  I could not help but think this was an interesting turn on the "swords into plowshares" quote from the Bible.

In later years, Volck regretted his sketches of Lincoln, who he described as "great and good." He stood by his other work, however, so he did not recant his support for the Southern cause.

Verdict: Well worth a look, if you're in the Portrait Gallery or Museum of American Art anyway.  Not large enough to make a full lunchtime trip, but you could easily combine it with a visit to the One Life show on Amelia Earhart, which is only a few steps away.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Song for the Horse Nation

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through January 7, 2013

This very large exhibit tells the story of the relationship between Native Americans and the horse.  It is one of the great stories of human contact with the animal world.  Without the horse, the history of the Native American people would be utterly different.  Native Americans see animals as fellow beings sharing a common destiny with humans, a different view than those of European descent have historically taken.

The horse originated in North America, then migrated elsewhere and died out in North America.  It returned to the continent with Columbus on his second voyage, in 1493.  In 1680, the Pueblo Indians staged a revolt against the Spanish in New Mexico, and 1500 horses passed into Native hands.  By the late 1700s, almost every tribe in North America was mounted.  Along with the spread of the horse, was the spread of firearms.  On display is a genuine Geronimo rifle.  I could not help but be reminded of the many hopeful people on "Antiques Roadshow" with their items they're just certain belonged to Geronimo or Sitting Bull.  I'm going to assume that the curators at the museum have authenticated this item.

One of the larger items on display is a Lakota tipi with horse decorations from the late 1800s.  The use of horse images shows how integral to their culture horses had become.  Horses transformed the lives of Native Americans in many ways, allowing them to travel longer distances and freeing women from many laborious tasks, thus giving them more time for creative pursuits.  Several famous people have been named for the horse, including former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Verdict: To see this in a lunch hour, you'll have to skim fairly quickly.  If you want to spend some serious time at this show, you'll need two hours easily.  Very informative and well laid out - worth the time, if you have it.

Black Box: DEMOCRACIA

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture

When: through January 13, 2013

Once again, I'm happy to have seen an offering from the Hirshhorn's "Black Box" series of videos.  Granted, they're odd, but in a good way.  I find myself thinking about these pieces after I've watched them, and not in the way I'm usually thinking about exhibits at the Hirshhorn.

Democracia is a Madrid-based artists' collective known for its socio-political work including performances, public engagement action, printed books and circulars and video installations.  This video, entitled "Ser y Durar" (which means To Exist and To Persist), is a collaboration between the collective and a group of Spanish traceurs.  What is a traceur, you ask?  Well, I didn't know either, until I saw this show.  A traceur is a person who plays the street sport parkour.  Still in the dark?  Me too - parkour is a sport in which people climb and jump over obstacles in order to reach a goal.  Apparently, this is a global sub-cultural phenomenon.  Just goes to show how uninformed I am about global sub-cultural phenomena - makes me wonder what else I'm missing...

The video consists of footage of several members of a traceur group (are they a team?  are they competing against one another?  I don't know.) as they race through a Spanish civil cemetery.  Civil cemeteries were reserved for those unable to be buried in Catholic cemeteries.  I'm not sure if the location has a significance, or if it just provides a good space for parkour. 

The five people jump over headstones, as pictured above, and the acrobatics is amazing to watch.  Especially when you consider that the surfaces in a cemetery are distinctly unforgiving, it's quite an impressive display.  Everyone emerges unscathed, and the end of the film sees the group happily walking down the street.  Outside the room where the video is playing are hanging red hoodies, either the ones used in the video or ones exactly like them.  I noted that they were alarmed, which, so far as I know, nothing else in the Hirshhorn is.  There's some great commentary to be made about what is valuable in our society, I'm sure.

Verdict: This is an interesting video, in keeping with the Black Box tradition.  Worth a look for the athleticism of the performers, even if you're not a fan of parkour.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sustaining/Creating: A National Juried Exhibition for Emerging Artists with Disabilities, Ages 16-25

Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 13, 2013

This is the 11th exhibition of the winners in this contest for young artists with disabilities; I've seen it twice before.  It's very interesting to see artists in the beginning of their careers - you can appreciate what you're seeing now, and keep an eye out for them to see what they'll create in the future.  I guess you could compare it to buying a baseball player's rookie card.

The theme of this year's exhibit is sustainability and contemporary creativity.  The artists were asked to bring innovative viewpoints to these subjects.  I confess, if I'd been asked to create a work of art with this as my theme, I would have been stumped.  Luckily for we museum goers, these young people have risen to the occasion.  One of the pieces that caught my eye was Copper 2 by Jacob Brown (he's 20 and suffers from spastic cerebral palsy).  It's an abstract (bet you didn't see that coming - me, liking an abstract!) that features great greens and blues with copper accents.  Another of my favorites was Restoring the Sublime by Leland Foster (he's 21 and has Crohn's Disease).  It's a painting of a boy painting a forest scene over a concrete wall.  There's something Norman Rockwell-esque about it, which one doesn't expect from a young artist.

Verdict: Don't miss this small show - it's in the corridor leading to the International Gallery.  Very manageable in a lunch hour and a great way to see what young artists are doing.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Beautiful Time: Photography by Sammy Baloji

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through January 6, 2013

Sometimes I wonder why exhibits end up in one museum rather than another.  This show, of photographs by the Congolese artist Sammy Baloji, could have been shown in the African Art Museum, but instead are here in Natural History.  Perhaps it's because the subject is the mines in the Congo?  I'm not sure, but I'd love to know more about how venues are chosen.

In the 1950s, there was a successful copper mining industry, which brought prosperity to what is now the Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  In 1960, the country gained its independence from their colonial rulers, but corrupt governments and mismanagement have led the industry to ruin and the local people's fortunes have fallen with the industry's.

Baloji takes old photographs of Congolese workers and the colonial managers, and superimposes them on current photographs of the area.  The juxtaposition of former wealth and prosperity with current desolation is both a very clever artistic technique and a quite sad commentary on current events.  Kudos to Baloji for his talent, and sympathy to the poor people, who now have very little in the way of industry.

Verdict: An unexpected show at Natural History and well worth a look - it's small and easily managed in a lunch hour.

Titanoboa: Monster Snake

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through January 6, 2013

I took the morning off on Thursday, and saw several different exhibits.  The number of shows closing in January is quite large (I've noticed over the years that this is often the case), and since I'm taking a fitness class three days a week, that eats into my time for seeing shows.  Add in the holidays, with their inevitable gatherings, and I was fearful I might miss something!  Now, I've got a manageable number left to see, so unless the Smithsonian adds a lot of shows between now and the end of the year, I should be able to bring you news of everything with no problem.

My first stop was the Natural History Museum to see Titanoboa, or a model of him/her, anyway.  The story of how the fossils of this enormous snake were found is quite interesting, but I'll let you read about it at the exhibit, or watch it on the Smithsonian Channel (available on YouTube).  The Reader's Digest Condensed Version of the story is that scientists were excavating in Colombia and found what they thought were crocodile vertebrae.  They sent them to Florida, where other scientists were examining them, and it was discovered that some of the bones were actually from the largest known snake in world history.  Modern snakes are nothing in comparison; this thing was longer than a school bus and weighed more than ten heavyweight wrestlers.

The curators have set up the show very nicely - in the front, there's lots of information about the dig, and the discovery; it's not until you get to the very back that you see the model they've constructed of the snake itself.  Big is not the word.  I was reminded of the basilisk from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  I'm not afraid of snakes and have nothing against them, but I really would not want to encounter a live version of this monster!

Verdict: Don't miss this opportunity to learn about the creatures of the rain forest in the Paleocene Era, witness the cooperation among scientists to come to conclusions about their findings and see a model of the biggest snake ever.

Abstract Drawings

Where: American Art Museum

When: through January 6, 2013

This is a small show, featuring 46 works on paper from the Smithsonian's collection of abstract drawings.  I'm reminded once again just how enormous the Smithsonian's art collection is, that they can put on entire shows without borrowing from other museums.  Artists began experimenting with abstraction in the early 20th century.  Some drawings were preparations for works in other media, but most were created as independent works of art.

One thing I noticed almost immediately is how many of the works are "Untitled."  I'm sure I've commented on this phenomenon before, but really?  Untitled?  I take the time out of my day to see this show, putting aside my lack of interest in pen and ink drawings and my skepticism about abstract art, and you can't even bother to give your work a name?  I'm sure there's some great philosophical reason for this, but it just seems sloppy to me.  Finish the job, already!!

One of the first pieces I saw was by Man Ray.  There was a big show of his works a while before I started going to shows on my lunch hour, and I've always been rather sorry I missed it.  Now, however, I can put that regret to bed.  His offering, you guessed it, "Untitled," from 1947 is merely a bunch of squiggles.  If this is indicative of his work (and, to be honest, I don't know, since I missed the show), I will lose no more sleep over having failed to attend his exhibition.

Just so you don't think I'm dead set against all abstract works or all works that are untitled, I did like John Ferren's "Untitled" from 1934.  No discernible figures or bits of landscape, so truly abstract, but I loved the color, so I'm giving it a thumbs up.

Another artist, Will Henry Stevens, was inspired by the works of Chinese Song Dynasty painters, which he first saw on a trip to the Freer Gallery in 1912.  I love to hear stories about people being moved by museums to try new things, or  embark on a life's work.  I feel a kinship with others who go to exhibits and are changed for the better for having gone.

Verdict: If you like abstract art, don't miss this show, which is easily managed in a lunch hour.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Art Institute of Chicago

Last week, I took a trip to Chicago for a business meeting.  I arranged to arrive several hours early, in order to visit The Art Institute of Chicago.  Located in the downtown area of the city, only a few blocks from my hotel, it's an amazing museum, and if you are ever in Chicago, I can't advise you strongly enough to pay a visit.

I had been hoping to take a guided tour of the museum, since I hadn't visited before, but they don't seem to offer those (Are docents now being replaced by technology?  Is there an app for that?), so I contented myself with an audio tour.  Uncertain where to begin, I decided that since I like French Impressionism, I would head in that direction.  Their collection is fantastic; if you like this type of art - do not miss this.  The most notable work is Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte."  It's enormous and so dominates its room.  The audio guide included commentary on this piece, of course, and I was interested to learn about it from the curators at the museum.

After the Impressionists, I wandered into a collection of European Decorative Arts.  Here I saw the highlight of my trip - a photograph cabinet designed by Josef Hoffmann.  It is an Arts and Crafts style piece of furniture - very square legs, with a gorgeous Art Nouveau design on the three drawers.  Simply lovely; if Stickley would make a reproduction, I'd buy it in a minute.

After my time with the Europeans, I moved downstairs and saw artworks from India, Korea, China and Japan, including a piece by Hokusai - I was reminded of my Japan Spring, and smiled to see another piece by this artist of whom I've grown quite fond.   After that, I walked through displays of African and Native American art.

I spent 2.5 hours, but could easily have spent 2.5 days.  It was one of my favorite parts of my trip, and I'm hoping to get back to the city, so I can visit again.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Inuit Art, Culture, and Environment

Where: Ripley Center

When: through December 2, 2012

In addition to its International Gallery, the large space where big exhibits are held, the Ripley has two other exhibit spaces - the Concourse and the Corridor.  I'm calling these exhibit spaces in the loosest sense of the term, as they are basically hallways.  The Corridor is actually the hallway leading from the Concourse to the International Gallery and the Concourse is the large space at the bottom of the escalator from the Mall.

The Concourse is not the best place to see an exhibit, as it's so clearly not designed for displays.  It's distracting, as there are lots of doors leading off to various offices and a water fountain.  Nevertheless, I've seen some interesting things here, and this show on Inuit art continues that tradition.

It's divided into three sections; the first of which is "Culture on Cloth."  These are wall hanging created by women in an Inuit village west of Hudson Bay in Nunavut.  At one time, the Inuit lived in seasonal camps, following the caribou migration, but in the mid-20th century, due both to changes in migration patterns and population growth, the Inuit began to starve.  In response to this dire situation, the Canadian government set up permanent settlements for the Inuit, providing both health care and education.  These textiles demonstrate the transition from the old way of life to the new, and they've been on a migration of their own, having been on display in various locations since 2002.

I was reminded while I looked at these hangings of the exhibit I'd seen earlier this year (or was it last year?), by the woman who had survived World War II in Poland and then worked as a seamstress in New York, who documented her story of evading capture by the Nazis in needlework.  I'd not thought of sewing as a story-telling device before, but clearly it is.  These pieces are far more abstract than the ones I saw earlier, but the skill is apparent in both.  I particularly liked Tundra by Ruth Qaulluaryuk and Summer and Winter by Winnie Tatya; both of them feature lovely colors.

The second section is "Kinngait to Ulukhaktok: Artist as Cultural Historian."  It shows works of Inuit graphic artists, who are continuing the oral story-telling traditions of the past in their documentation of the transition from a migratory life to one of living in a settled community.

The third section is "Exploring the Eastern Inuit World."  The Maritime Far Northeast is one of the world's least-known geographic regions.  It comprises Maine, the Maritimes, Greenland and Nunavut.  Based on the pictures, it has a truly unforgiving climate.  It appears to be snowed in for much of the year, especially in the northern-most areas.  Of course, the climate is changing, so one wonders how much longer the snow will continue to fall in such abundance.  One can only hope that the Inuit can adapt once again to a changing environment.

Verdict: This is a very interesting show.  I found that it complemented the show on Arctic lives at the American Indian Museum very well, so if you can manage both shows in one day or close together, it's worth doing so. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fly Marines! The Centennial of Marine Corps Aviation: 1912-2012

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through January 6, 2013

Yet another show at the Air and Space Museum, and once again, I walk away thinking I'm just not that interested.  This exhibit features art work depicting the history of Marine Corps Aviation.  I would describe the art as serviceable - not exactly the type of thing that would hang in an art gallery.  These are from the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

I will say, it's amazing how many things are celebrating a 100th anniversary this year: L.L. Bean, Fenway Park, Julia Child's birth, the sinking of the Titanic.  1912 was an eventful year!

The information about the early years of the Marine Corps is rather interesting, but I grew weary by the time I was reading about the many accomplishments of the Corps in Vietnam.  Marine Corps aviators started at the Naval Academy and first made a combat appearance in WWI.  Between the wars, the service floundered, but they were instrumental in turning the war against the Japanese in the battles of Midway and Guadalcanal.

Verdict:  If you're interested in military history or aviation generally, go see this exhibit.  Otherwise, you can give it a miss. 

Arctic Journeys/Ancient Memories: The Sculpture of Abraham Anghik Ruben

Where: American Indian Museum

When: through January 2, 2013

I was very surprised by this exhibit; not only did it include works of art inspired by Native American sculptures, but also works of art inspired by Norse stories and sculptures.  When I come to this museum, I don't expect to see works that reflect my own ethnic background.  Yet, here are works that feature Thor and Odin!  It made me realize that people are far more connected than you think - what seems a culture unlike your own can be very similar, if you take the time to look closely.

Ruben is a sculptor who has taken as his subject here a contrast of the lives of two ancient northern people: the Norse and the Inuit.  Both groups were explorers; his work deals with this idea, along with the ideas of migration and displacement.  The polar bear is considered a powerful guardian spirit across the Arctic and his work features polar bears and other animals, whose spirits were important in these cultures.  In much of his work, I thought of the word "entwined."  The figures seem to move in and out, to come together and move apart.

Ruben uses Brazilian soapstone as his medium in many works - about as far from the Arctic as you can get.  Also featured are two impressive narwhal tusks, intricately carved.  At the back of the room, there is also a video, providing more information.

Verdict: This is a great small show - worth a look, regardless of your ethnicity!

The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through December 31, 2012

In the 19th century, photographs were generally single portraits, making a record of one moment in time.  In the 20th century, photographers began to take multiple portraits of the same person or group of people - to record their subject over a span of time.  This show is composed of the works of 20 different artists who photographed the same subject multiple times.  It is primarily composed of works in the National Gallery's collection (which shows you just how large a collection it is).  The portraits are meant to demonstrate fluctuating states of being or to mark the passage of time.  The idea of identity is inherently mutable.  I think photography is viewed as more "truthful" than painting.  The idea is that this is how someone looked at a particular time (leaving Photoshop out of the discussion for the moment) - the serial portrait plays with that idea - by showing how people change over time, it asks the question, "What is the true picture of the person?"  "Who is this person, really?"

The first photographs featured are Harry Callahan's portraits of his wife, Eleanor.  I'd seen these before, in the big Callahan retrospective at the National Gallery not long ago.  I think this is the first time I'd seen something again, so I felt quite sophisticated, being able to think, "Oh yes, I remember that photo."  Callahan was not the only artist to take pictures of his wife; we were treated to a whole slew of them, including Emmet Gowin, Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand.  I especially liked Gowin's "Edith, Danville, Virginia" which featured his wife with a shadow of leaves across her face and "Edith & Moth Flight" which was taken at night with only the available light and a long exposure - the moths seem to leave luminous traces around her face.  It turns out I'm not much more interested in pictures of Georgia O'Keefe than I am in her art, so I didn't give those more than a cursory glance.

Far more interesting was "The Brown Sisters," by Nicholas Nixon.  These are photos of the artist's wife and her three sisters, taken each year from 1975 through 2011.  It's tempting to read into these photographs great meaning about how the sisters felt about each other in any given year, but I'm not sure that's completely valid.  Sometimes, you just pose for the camera, and whether you're standing at a slight remove means nothing more than that you're afraid you're coming down withe a cold, and don't want to pass it along to everyone else.  Perhaps there's some validity that comes with tracing the relationships over time?  I read a review of this show not long ago in the Post, and the reviewer came away with the idea that this reminds us of death.  The sisters are (obviously) aging in the photographs; eventually, there will only be three sisters - eventually, they will all be gone.  My thoughts were not so morbid.  I was impressed that the four women and the photographer came together every year for 36 years - good for them.  I can't but admire their perseverance.  Yes, eventually, they'll all be gone, but so will we all.  Dwell all you like on the inevitable; I prefer to concentrate on the work they've done, rather than the fact that they won't be able to do it forever.

An intriguing work is Ilse Bing's "Self Portrait" from 1988.  It includes a shattered mirror, in which you can see yourself.  What's the meaning of this, I wondered?  Am I supposed to see myself in her?  Is it meant to be a universal portrait?  I'm not sure I came away with any answers, but if art is supposed to make you think, mission accomplished.  Next up is Ann Hamilton's body object series.  I could not help but be reminded of the web site someone put up with pictures of random objects on a rabbit's head.  I seem to remember a stack of pancakes were among the things that the long-suffering pet bunny had to endure.

Nikki S. Lee's self portraits really stuck with me - another example of the thought-provoking.  She transforms herself into a member of a particular group (skateboarders, yuppies, lesbians, Hispanics, hip hop enthusiasts) and then documents her interactions with actual members of the group.  It made me wonder how she managed this, and if she ever let on to her companions that she really wasn't part of their group.  I can see that this is an interesting experiment, but I wonder about the human cost of the deception.  I wanted to know the full story, rather than just see the photos.

Gillian Wearing takes photographs of herself disguised as other people.  Perhaps the best known and most striking is "Me as Mapplethorpe."  The only way to tell that this isn't a portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe is the small gap between the mask and her face that you can see just below her eyes.  It's a "copy" of Mapplethorpe's final self-portrait, done in 1998.  I was reminded of the Hide/Seek exhibit at the Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago; there was a great photo of Mapplethorpe included - when he was young and well.

Finally, Tomoko Sawada's "ID-400" reminded me of the Asian-American portrait exhibit that I just saw at the Portrait Gallery.  Sawada created 400 different personas, then photographed herself in a photo booth.  Without reading the notes next to the picture, I would not have realized it's the same person.  An amazing amount of work to pull off - again, it's the dedication that stands out for me.

Verdict: Well worth seeing.  It's a big show, so allow plenty of time.  There's lots of different things here, so a little something for everyone.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Conestoga Wagon

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 2, 2013

Seems amazing to be reviewing things that will be closing in 2013, but there you are - time does march along, whether we wish it to or not. I've been going to the Smithsonian regularly since late 2009, so I've been at this a while now.

The wagon that is on display here was built in the 1840s or 1850s.  These wagons originated around 1750 in southeastern Pennsylvania, near the Conestoga River, hence the name.  Note that Conestoga Wagons did not carry people (that would be a prairie schooner - something I didn't realize when I started looking at it - that's part of the point - learning things), but freight only.  Their territory was between the coast and the inland, meaning West Virginia and Ohio.

Verdict: If you're at the museum anyway, take five minutes and have a look.

Celia Cruz Portrait by Robert Weingarten

Where: American History Museum

When: through October 30, 2012

Hooray!  Another photograph by Robert Weingarten.  This one is on display at the American History Museum, rather than with the show at the Ripley, but I was delighted with it all the same.  Even though I know nothing about Celia Cruz, I'm so taken with Weingarten's work that it really doesn't matter.

This photograph is very colorful, as you can see from the picture above; vivid is probably a better description than colorful.  Apparently, the choice of Celia Cruz was made by an online vote (how did I not know about this?).  She was among several choices, all people who were well-represented by objects in the museum's collection.  The difference between this picture and the ones at the Ripley is that Weingarten didn't have a chance to interview her, so the public answered the question, "What makes Celia Cruz important?"  A word cloud was generated by the answers and Weingarten worked from that.  Included in the display case were objects from the museum's collection that are featured in the picture.

I've always thought the Ripley was an awkward and unpleasant space for a show, but I now see its advantages.  The glare from the sun reflected off the display case and made it hard to see the photograph clearly - not a problem at the Ripley, with its subterranean location!

Verdict: I'm such a fan of Weingarten that I'm going to recommend anything that features his work.  It's only one photograph, so you can easily see it on your way to see something else in the museum.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Invention Case: Hot Spot of Invention

Where: American History Museum

When: through October 21, 2012

This is another exhibit in the West Wing of the museum that's about to go off display, as the museum completely renovates that side of the building.  This is a small display - similar in size to the Archives Center's offerings.  It tells the story of MIT and how it became a "hot spot" of invention in the 1930s.  A hot spot is: "a place that sparks and supports innovation by networks of creative people."  In 1930, Karl Taylor Compton became President of MIT, which started a scientific boom there.  The university developed strong ties to government and contributed directly to the WWII war effort.  Charles Stark Draper designed the gyroscope; Vannevar Bush improved radar and Harold Edgerton invented a strobe for night aerial reconnaissance photography.  The Radiation Law and Edgerton's lab are both still part of MIT, but the Draper Lab was spun off and is now an independent entity, due to anti-war protests in the 1960s.

Verdict: If you have an interest in scientific history, or are just wandering around the museum with a few minutes to spare, check this out.  Otherwise, you're not missing a blockbuster show if you don't see this.

Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475–1540

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: December 31, 2012

Augsburg is one of Germany's oldest cities, founded in 15 B.C. as a Roman military fortress, and named for the Emperor Augustus.  Its close proximity and many commercial ties to Italy led to an interest in classical art and its adaptations during the Italian Renaissance.  1475-1540 was Augsburg's cultural golden age and works from this time period are what is on display here.

Prints played an important role in the expression of religious devotion common in the late middle ages.  Many in Augusburg embraced Luther's ideas, and he visited the city in 1518.  Augsburg adopted a "middle way" - there was an official tolerance of both Catholics and Protestants, which allowed artists to create art for both groups.

"Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St. John," a print by Erhard Ratdott, on display here, is the earliest extant multifigured and multicolored print in the history of Western art.  It's always exciting to see something with an historical pedigree.  You can see the first time someone decided to try something new; I'm a bit surprised the gallery hasn't played this up more in its advertising.  Ratdott used vellum as his canvas, in an attempt to imitate the look of illuminated manuscripts, so a nod to the past, as well as a bold venture into the future.  Although this was done in 1491, the colors are still vibrant and beautiful.

Much of the art centers around women leading men to their downfall, a sadly common Biblical theme.  Works depicting people surprised by death also abound, which are not so misogynistic, but are a bit morbid.  Lots of art was created for Maximillian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was a patron of the city.  I was also reminded of the exhibit of Spanish armor I saw some time ago when I saw medals that had been created for Charles V.

Verdict: Not the most dazzling show, and not a large crowd.  It's a moderately sized exhibit, so manageable in a lunch hour.  Worth a look, especially if you are a fan of medieval art.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Gifts to the Collection: 1987-2012

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through December 15, 2012

The Sackler's collection was founded by Arthur Sackler, but other people have given gifts to the museum since it opened 25 years ago.  This display is a selection of those gifts.  I had been expecting a quite large exhibit, but it's only one room, so you can linger all you like and still see everything in a short period of time.

There is a case filled with seals used by artists to sign their work - I was reminded of an exhibit I saw quite a long time ago at the Freer on Chinese calligraphy where I first learned about these seals.  Two of the seals were carved from peach pits - a idea for recycling that I confess had not previously occurred to me!  There are also on display two scholar's rocks.  I had heard of these before, at the National History museum's orchid display in 2011.  Scholars would collect large interesting rocks that reminded them of mountains.  The idea is that by contemplating these objects, the mind and spirit would be refreshed in the same way that they would by walking in the mountains.  I'm not sure I buy into this line of thinking, but the rocks were interesting.

Pictured above is one of several kingfisher-feather ornaments on display.  These are made of actual feathers, which are then cut into shapes and glued into cells in a metal substrate.  I'm not sure I know exactly what this is, but the jewelry is beautiful - the picture really doesn't do justice to the urquoise color.  Another item that caught my eye was a painting, "Two Celestial Ladies," from the Ming Dynasty; the flowing lines reminded me of Art Nouveau - although it was painted centuries before that artistic movement.

Verdict: This is a great small show.  Easily managed in a lunch hour, it gives the viewer a sense of what's in the general collection without being completely overwhelming.

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts

Where: African Art Museum

When: through December 9, 2012

I realized as I walked over to see this show that it had been a while since I'd visited the African Art Museum.  It seems as if they don't offer as many special exhibits as the other Smithsonian museums.  I'm not sure why that is, but I wish they offered more.  I don't know much about African art, and attending these shows is a good way to learn.

The theme of this exhibit is how the sun, moon, stars, lightning and rainbows have influenced African art.  What I really liked about it is how the curators blended ancient artifacts with modern African art.  For example, an Egyptian mummy case was placed between two displays of light used as artwork, including one that was a video of planes taking off and landing - I was reminded of the show I just saw at Air and Space.

At the beginning of the show, there is a picture of the Nabta Playa in southern Egypt.  It's one of the earliest known calendars - it resembles Stonehenge, although not in such good repair, and is 7,000 years old - more than 1,000 years older than Stonehenge.  The first room is made up almost entirely of Egyptian pieces; once again, I was amazed at the age of these items.  How they have managed to survive for thousands of years is incredible.

There are also video displays - the one that caught my eye was of ants running through sugar.  The video is reversed, so it appears that the background is black and the ants are white - it really does look like a starry sky.  Another item is something called Rainbow Serpent, by Romuald Hazoume.  It's an enormous circle made of recycled jerry cans (used to carry gasoline).  When I say it's enormous, it must be 10-12 feet high.

Verdict: This is an interesting show.  It's got lots of different kinds of art, something for everyone.  It's quite large, so you'll have to skim through on a lunch hour, or come back for a second look to see everything.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The McCrindle Gift: A Distinguished Collection of Drawings and Watercolors

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through November 25, 2012

Joseph McCrindle, 1923-2008, was a major art collector, literary agent and founder of the Transatlantic Review.  He gave over 300 works to the National Gallery, as well as to other museums and cultural institutions.  He wanted to express his appreciation for the many happy hours they had provided him; if only I had art to give away to express my appreciation!

This show is a small selection of his gifts to the National Gallery, meant to provide an overview of his tastes.  It's a wide range of items, mostly drawings and prints.  Sadly, as far as I'm concerned, there's very little color in this exhibit, and I'm just not an afficianado of monochrome works.  Granted, in the third and final room, a bit of color does creep in, including three John Singer Sargent works.  The one pictured here is of Sir Neville Wilkinson, the others are a view of Cairo and an interior of a Spanish church.  Not the typical Sargent paintings of society ladies in white.  Also in the last room is a small work by Edward Lear, he of the nonsense verse.  This is a view of Venice, which contrasts nicely with another Venice scene by Hercules Brabazon Brabazon (an unlikely name for an Englishman, but the notes tell me England was his home).  Note that the scene has been altered by Brabazon; from this viewpoint, one would not see the buildings pictured - just like the view paintings in the National Gallery's exhibit last year.

Verdict: A very nice show, especially if you don't mind a lack of color in your art.  Lots of religious art, which I could also do without, but who doesn't like looking at a nice head of St. John the Baptist from time to time?

AirCraft: The Jet as Art

Where: National Air and Space Museum

When: through November 25, 2012

Jeffrey Milstein, a photographer, stands at the end of airport runways and photographs planes from below as they are landing, at speeds of up to 175 miles per hour.  A hair-raising way to create art, but the results can't be disputed.  Although I view airplanes more as modes of transportation than as objects for artistic creation, these images are lovely, and the photography is stunning.  Plus, I learned something new, which makes up for my having to go to the Air and Space Museum.  A photographic typology is a collection of images on the same topic.  Apparently, the first ones were of industrial architecture, but the subjects have expanded in the years since this began.  Milstein gives us a photograph typology of airplanes, including one that I identified (correctly) as a Southwest Airlines jet (remember, you're looking at these from the bottom, so the identifying insignia is not visible) and one that seemed to have the flag of Maryland on it.  I saw another image of this plane, which was identified as Maryland One, so I was right about that as well.  Is this the governor's plane?  I'm guessing that's the case; I never thought about the governor of Maryland needing a plane before...  The comment next to the typology compares these images to pinned butterflies, and that's a good analogy.  Showing them all together makes it easier to compare and contrast one's "specimens."

Verdict: A nice small show - easily managed in a lunch hour, even with the inevitable crowds at Air and Space.

Jessie Cohen: An Eye for Animals

Where: National Zoo

When: through December 31, 2012

I've never been to an exhibit at the National Zoo before; at least, I've not been to see an exhibit that wasn't an animal.  This small selection of photographs is in the Zoo's visitor center, very close to the Connecticut Avenue entrance.

Jessie Cohen worked as a photographer at the National Zoo for 30 years prior to her death in 2009.  This is a tribute to her, rather than simply a collection of wildlife photography.  Her work is stunning; the photography is beautiful and her ability to capture the personalities of a wide range of animals was amazing.  A particularly moving picture is one of Ling Ling, captured in the spring time, under a willow tree.  The fact that I visited only a day after the death of the Zoo's giant panda cub made the photo all the more poignant.

Along with the excellent photography is a collection of quotes, both by Cohen and by those who knew her.  "Patience, practice and sharp eyes are the basic ingredients of all good zoo photographers," Cohen said, and I think you can apply that description to many other endeavors as well.  Reading what her colleagues wrote about her gives the display a personal touch that goes beyond the photography.  It's a shame that more people won't see this exhibit, given its location.

Verdict: Make an effort to go see this, if you're in upper Northwest.  If you're at the Zoo anyway, you owe it to yourself to take a few minutes at the beginning or end of your trip.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Portrait of Alice Waters

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through November 30, 2012

Dave Woody, the winner of the 2009 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, is the photographer.  It's a lovely composition; Waters is pictured beneath a mulberry tree.  Its fruit is too delicate to ship, so one assumes this is a nod to her dedication to eating local cuisine.  I'm all for this, but I would note that it's a lot easier to do this in California than in North Dakota, especially in the winter.  For the fact that she has been part of a movement that encourages people to buy from local suppliers and supports farmers' markets, I am truly grateful.

Verdict: You can easily see this along with any other show on display.  I saw it along with the "Recent Acquisitions," as they're in the same hallway.

Recent Acquisitions

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through November 4, 2012

You can almost always see a selection of items the museum has added recently in this hallway exhibit.  The pieces are up for a year, and then a new set of items goes on display.  This is the second time I've seen this show, and it's interesting to see what the museum picks.  Obviously, portraits of some people are clearly worthy of inclusion, but others might be more of a stretch - is someone who is very well-known and important today necessarily going to be so in 20 years?

Some of the pieces that caught my eye included: a portrait of Will Rogers - hung near a sculpture of him.  I didn't know that his parents were Cherokee; perhaps I'll see him featured in an exhibit at the American Indian Museum one day?  The commentary by Nancy Reagan's portrait compared her to Jackie Kennedy, in terms of bringing glamor back to the White House.  I'd never made that connection before, and I doubt I'll make it again.  I can't quite compare the big shoulder pads of the 1980s to the pill-box hat.  A Clara Tice portrait of Frank Crowinshield (the editor of Vanity Fair) is composed of nudes (they make up his face) that the New York Vice Squad had tried to confiscate.  A drawing of his cat makes up his mustache.

Verdict: Well worth a stop, especially if you're in the museum already.  Small, so won't take your entire lunch hour to see.

Several exhibits at American History

Where: American History Museum

When: through October 21, 2012

The west side of the American History Museum is undergoing renovations - and the exhibits on the 3rd floor are about to close to make way for construction.  Currently on display are two exhibits featuring items from the museum's collection of musical instruments, an exhibit on the year 1939 and an elaborate doll house.  I saw all of these displays in one visit - they're all small, so it's easy to do.

The exhibit on musical instruments are divided into two spaces: one is the Musical Instruments Gallery and one is a room of decorated musical instruments.  The Gallery features four Stradivarius, which are quite beautiful as objects, let alone as instruments.  Also on display was a small violin of the sort that dancing instructors used to carry with them in their pockets to provide music for their students.  I'd never heard of such a thing before, let alone seen one.  The decorated musical instruments are just that - instruments that have been decorated.  Two items that caught my eye were an Art Deco harmonica, among many designed for the 1933 and 1939 World's Fairs.  I have a personal connection to the 1933 World's Fair, as my paternal grandparents went there on their honeymoon, so anything from that event is of interest.  Another lovely item was an grand piano designed for the 1939 World's Fair with an Art Deco case.  Both the items in the Gallery and the decorated musical instruments are sometimes off display, as they are used by musicians in museum concerts.  Even though it means you might not see something when you go to visit, I like the idea that these items are being used.  They're not just relics of an earlier age; they're "living, breathing" instruments.

When I went to see the small show on the year 1939, I had the feeling I'd been there before.  I looked through the list of shows I've been to see, and didn't spot it, so perhaps I'm thinking of something else.  The perils of middle age!!  Entertainment provided a way for people to escape the unpleasantness of life in this year, and the show, which is far too small to provide a complete picture of America at that time, focuses on  this escapism. The big draw for this show is the hat and boots worn by the actor playing the scarecrow in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," that year's great hit movie.  I found out that the ruby slippers were originally silver, but the color was changed to highlight the fact that the movie was in Technicolor.  Charlie McCarthy is located here - one wonders if he'll be displayed somewhere else, or put in storage when the show closes?  I'd think he'd fit in nicely with Archie Bunker's chair and Fonzie's jacket - things that older people will be thrilled to see and younger people will shrug their shoulders and pass by.

Finally, I went to see Faith Bradford's Dollhouse, pictured above.  Note that this will remain on display until October 31, 2012, so you've got a few extra days to see this.  It's not your ordinary dollhouse, with a few rooms and plastic furniture, oh no.  It's enormous; you have to stand on a riser to see all of it.  The idea is that the house belongs to Mr. and Mrs. Doll, their ten children, servants and visiting grandparents.  The attention to detail is both impressive and slightly unnerving.  Faith Bradford was a librarian who worked for the Library of Congress.  Side note: why is it when I see any evidence of a librarian at these exhibits, it's always in connection with something slightly odd? You'd think we were all lunatics.  Many of us are completely normal, I assure you.  Ms. Bradford gave this dollhouse, which she had designed, decorated and furnished herself, to what was then the National Museum in 1951.  She would stop by periodically to clean it, and she put out Christmas decorations when the season approached.  I could not help but be reminded of the tinfoil sculpture at the American Art Museum, which is also impressive, but evidence of a mind that does not work like the average mind.

Verdict: There's nothing here so earth-shattering that you should drop everything to run over, but if you're there anyway, this is a pleasant way to spend a bit of time.