Sunday, January 29, 2012

Perspectives: Minouk Lim

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through March 18, 2012

This is the latest in the Sackler's "Perspectives" series, which highlights modern works of art, usually videos, from artists throughout Asia.  They are always shown in the main lobby of the Sackler, so you waste no time in getting to the exhibit once you're arrived at the museum.

Minouk Lim is from South Korea and her video, The Weight of Hands, deals with the response to the government's controversial River Restoration Project.  This project is, according to the government, supposed to be good for the rivers environmentally, but the scope of the project and the enormous changes it will bring have sparked unfavorable reaction.  Lim's video examines how changes in one's environment can affect individuals.

Part of the video is shot with regular film, and part uses thermal imaging, so the people show up as heat images.  During the daylight sequences, we see the scale of the project, which is massive.

Verdict: It's a short film, so easily seen in a lunch hour.  It's odd, but thought-provoking.

The Wonder of Light: Touch and Learn

Where: Smithsonian Castle

When: through February 6, 2012

This display is in the Great Hall of the Castle, in an exhibit case by the doorway out to the Haupt Garden.  Contained in the case are various items from the Smithsonian collections that involve light, along with information about where to go to get more information.  There seemed to be an interactive component to this, but I couldn't figure out how to get it to work, so that part was lost on me.

One of the items was a painting entitled Sunlihgt and Shadow by Allan Rohan Crite.  He used dabs of white paint to denote the light filtered through the trees - it's a very effective technique.  I learned that the Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory used to be located behind the Castle - now it's in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The area that now contains the Haupt Garden has had an interesting history - at one point, bison were living there!

Verdict: I'm not sure how successful this exhibit will be - it's quite easy to overlook, I must admit.  If you're walking through the Castle anyway, have a look, otherwise, you're not missing much if you don't see it.

Seasons: Arts of Japan

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through February 12, 2012

This is another in the Freer's "seasons" series, exploring the ways that the seasons of the year are depicted in or influence Chinese and Japanese art.  Perhaps it's my long association with academia, and its yearly rhythms, but I like marking the seasons or the months of the year.  There's something comforting in the notion that the season change (especially if the season you're in is not your favorite!) and nature presents us with something new to notice and appreciate throughout the year.

The Japanese express seasonality not only in the subject matter of their artwork, but also in the textures and glazes used in their pottery.  Something could represent winter, even if it didn't depict a snowy scene.

There was on display a lovely set of black vases with chrysanthemums in muted colors that really caught my eye.  I was surprised that I liked so much, as I couldn't describe them as colorful.  The flowers were very striking, especially as they were set against a black background.  Another favorite of mine was the painting pictured above, Heron and Willow, by Hanabusa Itcho.  It features lovely brushwork on the willow branches and the heron is very lifelike.

The Japanese also used the objects portrayed in their art to symbolize aspects of life.  The cherry blossoms, which appear so fleetingly in spring, are a symbol of the brevity of life - a melancholy thought.  The long flight of the goose represents solitude, and the pine, bamboo and plum are the three friends of the winter season, when, in my view, I need as many friends as I can get!

In a small room off one of the main exhibit areas is a display devoted to tea utensils.  Tea practitioners (what might they be, one wonders?) were given to using different glazes for different times of the year, so one might use a particular teapot in winter, but not in summer.  Apparently, emotional qualities were attributed to different utensil materials (a bit of a stretch there, I think), and there were tea masters and different schools of tea.  I would love to see a real Japanese tea ceremony - far more interesting then watching myself dunk a bag in hot water, I'm sure.

Verdict: This is a lovely exhibit that you can see comfortably in an hour, and the Freer is always a wonderful place to go.

Harry Callahan at 100

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through March 4, 2012

This exhibit celebrates not only the centenary of Callahan's birth, but also the recent gift of 45 photographs to the Gallery by the Callahan family.  Callahan was inspired by Ansel Adams and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Bauhaus photographer, in his work.  Of course, I was reminded of the exhibit on the Bauhaus I saw in the Gallery's library a few months ago.

Callahn found that by experimenting with movement and exposures, he could "draw with light."  It's an interesting idea, and one that answers critics of photography as art.  If you're merely taking a picture of something, have you really created anything, in the same way that a painter or a sculptor does?  In my view, yes, you have.  It's no small trick to get the lighting just right, or frame the subject just so, or put certain elements together to tell the story you want to tell.  However, for those who think photography is nothing more than point and click, Callahan's work  belies that idea.  He moved his camera in order to create waves of light in his pictures - I'm not doing the pictures justice, but they resemble abstract art more than they look like the cars he photographed in Detroit.  His photographs of his wife, Eleanor, on the other hand, were brutally realistic.  He took pictures of her from angles which flatter no one, so one must admire her support of his art.

Callahan taught at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and he would try out the assignments he gave his students.  Proof that there's no better way to learn a subject than to teach it to someone else.  My favorite of the photos were of women walking down the streets of Chicago, lost in thought on their way to work or appointments.  I felt as if I could make up stories about each one, and isn't that part of what a great photographer does?  Lets one picture be worth a thousand words?

Verdict: Well worth seeing, whether you're familiar with Callahan's work or are, like me, new to it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Directions: Empire³

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through February 26, 2012

This exhibit is made up of three videos of the Empire State Building.  The first, in the room to the right, is by Andy Warhol.  He set up a camera in a building facing the Empire State Building and filmed it overnight.  In its entirety, it's six or eight hours in length.  That's right; hours and hours of film of a building: nothing happens.  Apparently when it was first shown, people rioted to get their money back.  I watched for a few minutes, felt I'd gotten the gist of the film and made my way to the next video.  I didn't feel myself hard done by, but then I watched it for free.

The second video, in the entryway, is a video of Warhol's movie.  Douglas Gordon filmed a screening of Warhol's movie and what you see is the resulting video.  It's the same immobile building, except grainier and with a shaky camera.  I gave this even less time than I'd devoted to the Warhol and moved onto the third video by Wolfgamg Staehle.

Staehle's piece is a webcast from 1999 (so don't expect current webcast techniques) in which he streamed still photographs taken at six second intervals for 24 hours.  Still not much going on here.

The Hirshhorn just never disappoints.  You go expecting ridiculous things, and that's what you get.  Ten minutes will give you an excellent sense of what these films are about.  The problem is that the Empire State Building, that triumph of Art Deco architecture, is best viewed clearly to appreciate its many gorgeous details - these are all just grainy, even the Warhol, which is the clearest of the bunch was shot at night, so you can't really see anything.

I know, I know, I'm missing the point of the films, I'm sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Warhold created his film, at least in part, to see if people would really be gullible enough to watch footage of a building for hours.

Verdict: Pass - surely you've got something better to do with your lunch hour?

Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley

Where: African Art Museum

When: through February 12, 2012

Apparently, the art of the Benue River Valley has not been much explored by historians or art enthusiasts.  They have turned their attention to areas both north and south of central Nigeria.  This exhibit seeks to redress this imbalance, by displaying many different art works from this region.

The "fluid and dynamic nature of art" makes pinpointing the exact source of this artwork very difficult.  People moved about within the Valley, and took their art with them.  Items found in one place could actually have been created elsewhere.  In addition, when people moved, they influenced the people they came into contact with, so you see similarities between different groups, which also makes the art curator's job more difficult.

I don't really know anything about African Art, so there were times I found it difficult to keep up with exactly what I was seeing - I really needed more than just a lunch hour to see everything.  One of the things I noticed is how often human representations in the art included scarification.  Clearly, this was part of their culture and it was reflected in their art.  Always seems a bit gruesome to me, but then I don't even have a tattoo!

Interestingly enough, for all the hardships involved in positively identifying the place of origin of much of the artwork, they know the individual person who created some of the more modern works.  They include pictures of this person when they have them available, so it seems as if they know either everything about the artist, or nothing at all.

There are several videos of people using the many ceremonial masks on display.  If you have time to watch them, they are quite interesting.  The videos date from the 1970s and earlier, so the quality is not the best, but you get an idea of what a Nigerian masquerade is like.

It's a very large display, and really requires quite a bit of time to see everything.  There are lots of different media on display: clay, stone, iron - the people of the Benue River Valley tuned their hands to many diverse materials.

Verdict:  This show is probably most worth seeing if you have more than a lunch hour in which to do it.  If you're already familiar with African art, you could probably get a lot out of it in an hour, but if you're a neophyte like me, you'll need a bit more time.

Gift of the Artist: Photographers as Donors

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through February 29, 2012

This is the latest of the Archives Center's exhibits and occupies their two display cases.  I've waxed rhapsodic about this little alcove of quiet enough in earlier posts, so I'll forgo that this time.

The photographs in this display are recent gifts to the archives from the photographers themselves.  One of the donors is Jonathan Singer, a podiatrist turned photographer.  He used to photograph orchids and received national attention for his work.  Now, he has turned his efforts to guitars, and one of his guitar photos is on display.

Fernando Sandoval is another donor, a DC photographer.  The photos he donated are of downtown DC in the 1980s and early 1990s.  I find the history of this area, where my office is located, fascinating.  In his pictures, it looks seedy and rundown, not a part of town in which one would wish to spend any time.  This is absolutely accurate - downtown was a place you hurried through to get to somewhere nicer.  Now, of course, that part of town is lovely.  I feel comfortable walking there anytime, even in the evenings - lots of activity (legal activity, I should stipulate), restaurants, shops, etc.  How times have changed!

Verdict: I saw this exhibit with the Toys display - an easy way to spend a short period of time.  You could combine this with another show in the museum - sadly, Julia Child's kitchen is closed for renovation, but there's lots else to see.

Toys from the Attic

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through February 2, 2012

Beginning in the early 19th century, middle class children no longer needed to work to help support their families, allowing them time for school and play.  There grew a large market for toys, which mimicked adult work: house cleaning implements, dolls and tools.  One of the toys on display is the "Little Embroiderer" which reminded me of the many beading kits I've seen in children's toy catalogs today.

The 19th century also marked the time when Christmas became a time for gift-giving, so if you're upset with the crass commercialization of the holiday, be aware this is not a recent phenomenon.  On display was a photo of a boy with a (toy?) rifle, which of course brought to mind "A Christmas Story."  I very much enjoyed seeing the game "Trusts & Busts or Frenzied Finance" - there's a game that could make a comeback!

The exhibit is in one of display cases by the Constitution Avenue entrance, what the museum calls its "Artifact Walls."  It's quite small and is not only easily seen in a lunch hour, you can see something else in addition.

Verdict: Worth seeing if you're on your way to the museum for something else and have a few extra minutes - not stunning enough to merit a trip on its own.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fabric of Survival: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz

 Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 29, 2012

I had heard from a friend that this was a great show, and I was not disappointed.  In 1977, at the age of 50, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, a seamstress without formal artistic training, decided to preserve her memories of her childhood and young adulthood in Poland for her daughters and their children.  She made panels from fabric using embroidery and fabric applique to create pictures to narrate her story which she has stitched onto the bottom of each panel.

As artwork, these panels are quite good.  The colors are wonderful and they really give you a wonderful sense of place and time.  The story is heartbreaking, all the more so, as there are so many people who have a similar story to tell.  Although she lost almost her entire family (one sister survived with her) and her way of life, Krinitz was lucky.  She was able to evade capture by the Nazis and after the war emigrated to the US with her husband and their older daughter.  The fact that so many people suffered far worse fates is truly horrible.  The way Krinitz tells her story is without sentimentality; it's never cloying or phony.  Her description of the terrible events that befell her is matter-of-fact, which makes it all the more powerful.

Verdict: Do make time to see this show; it's not very large, so works well for a lunch hour and is well worth the trip.

Power/Play: China's Empress Dowager

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through January 29, 2012

The Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) was the dominant political figure of the Qing Court from the 1860s to her death.  The Qing Court was regarded as corrupt, and Cixi was believed to have ordered the death of foreigners and Chinese Christians during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

The photographs on display were part of a public relations campaign on Cixi's part to rehabilitate her standing, particularly with foreigners.  These pictures led her to become an enduring symbol of a dying reign and contributed to her being viewed as a "dragon lady."  These photos were given as gifts to foreign heads of state.  One of them was given to Theodore Roosevelt, and was borrowed from Blair House for this exhibit.  Roosevelt's daughter Alice was part of the American delegation that met with Cixi; one does wonder how that meeting went!

Part of the exhibit shows Cixi's eunuchs and female attendants in various poses.  She had them dress up in costumes to appear in tableaux.  She herself would also participate, dressed as the Goddess of Mercy.  Although I'm sure Cixi enjoying herself, I noticed that no one else in the photos looks particularly happy.

Verdict: This show is well worth seeing.  It gives a rather different view of the Qing dynasty than the "Family Matters" show, also on display at the Sackler.

Momentum: A National Juried Exhibition for Emerging Artists with Disabilities, Ages 16-25

Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 22, 2012

I'm pretty sure this is the third time I've seen this annual exhibit.  It's meant to encourage artists with disabilities at a time when they are deciding whether or not to make the arts their career.  I'm impressed by their talents, and when you read about what they struggle with on a daily basis, their work is just that much more impressive.

This year's theme is the creative spark, the force that drives their artistic interest.  I'm not entirely sure that each piece necessarily conveyed the answer to that question ("What is it that drives you to create?"), but I enjoyed myself nonetheless.

The piece that most caught my attention was "Skateboarding Geisha" by Jansen Smith.  Really, how could you not want to look at a piece called Skateboarding Geisha?  Smith suffers from cerebral palsy that affects his right hand.  He makes prints, and he makes them first with his left hand and then with his right, to show the difference the disease makes on his coordination.  I didn't see a vast deal of difference between the two prints, but I was greatly taken with the idea and the picture.

Another artist, Xi Nan, who works with ceramics, was quoted, “I have learned to be strong and perseverant in the journey of making my art works; no risk, no miracle.”  I love that sentiment: no risk, no miracle.  I'm going to make it my  motto for 2012.

Verdict: This small show is great for a lunchtime excursion.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Bright Beneath: The Luminous Art of Shih Chieh Huang

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through January 8, 2012

Huang was a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow (I didn't even know such a program existed) who was inspired by the bioluminescense of deep sea creatures to create his art.  In the deep sea, light cannot penetrate, so creatures that live there must produce their own light.  Basically, they're glow in the dark creatures.

Huang's art is in a darkened room just off the Ocean Hall, and his "creatures" glow there in brilliant bright colors.  It's great fun to watch them moving and lighting up, assisted by bulbs and fans.  I was reminded of Andy Warhol's description of his Shadows as disco decor - this would have been a fine addition to the 1970s dance venues.  There are small objects floating around, as well as the large ones, so if you go, pay close attention to everything.

Verdict: This show is closing on Sunday (much to the staff's chagrin - apparently it works wonders as a tantrum soother), so it would have to be a weekend trip.  Great fun if you have the time!

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 22, 2012

I didn't know much about Gertrude Stein before I went to see this exhibit, so I found it very informative.  I had no idea, for instance, that she was the person to coin the phrase "Lost Generation."  Nor did I know that she and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, are both buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.  I knew that famous people other than Jim Morrisson were buried there, but didn't realize they were among them.

Stein used clothing as a tool to create her identity, and she dressed unconventionally from the time she was in college.  Her clothes were mannish, but interestingly enough, she never wore pants, but always long skirts.  She and Toklas had blue wallpaper with a dove pattern in their Paris apartment at 5, rue Christine, and it is recreated in one of the exhibit rooms.  The apartment seems to have been a combination of  home and salon, as they had artwork displayed in the public rooms and entertained many artists.  Stein took credit for discovering Picasso and was often photographed with his portrait of her, which she bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in her will.

She created "word portraits" of artists; they were designed to evoke, but not describe a person.  A recording of her reading two of her portraits plays in one of the rooms.

The piece with which I was most taken was one by Devorah Sperber, who replicates masterpieces using spools of thread (just the sort of crazy, over-the-top thing I find appealing).  Here, she has recreated Picasso's portrait of Stein.  You have to view it through an acrylic sphere (more over-the-top yet!) in order to see it properly.  It sounds ridiculous, but when you look at it through the little globe - it's amazing.

Verdict: Go see this show; it takes a bit of time to go through all the rooms, but is very interesting and well worth a lunch hour.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Seasons: Japanese Screens

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through January 22, 2012

If the Sackler is my favorite of the Smithsonian museums, then the Freer is a close second.  It was also quiet during this busy holiday week, a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle which is the National Mall at the end of December.

This exhibit is another in the Freer's year-long examination of the role of the seasons in Chinese and Japanese decorative arts.  Japanese screens have both a practical and an aesthetic value - I am reminded of William Morris' idea that one's home should contain nothing except that which is beautiful or useful.  This is a way to have something that meets both criteria.  Screens were imported from China and Korea originally, but the Japanese soon learned to make screens themselves.  They served two purposes: as partitions to define space and as a format to display art.

I most liked Cherry & Willow Trees with Poem Slips.  This represented the 17th century equivalent of a poetry slam - people would gather to drink tea and sake, and tie poems to the trees as an offering to the gods.

Verdict: This is well worth the small amount of time it takes to see - there are only a few screens on display as each one is quite large.  A trip to the Freer is always lovely, and this show is no exception to that rule.

Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through January 16, 2012

Yet again, I'm reminded of why the Sackler is my favorite of the Smithsonian museums.  Even though I visited this show during the week between Christmas and New Year's, when the museums are filled with tourists, the Sackler was mercifully quiet.

This exhibit showcases portraits of members of the Qing dynasty court, both men and women.  The Qing dynasty ruled in China from the mid-1600s until 1912.  The portraits of women were commissioned by male descendants, who used the paintings for ancestor worship.  The portraits of men were commissioned by themselves during their lifetime to serve more secular purposes.  Although the women are always depicted in formal court attire, reflecting the status of their husbands, the men are depicted both formally and informally.

I was struck by a portrait of Hongyan, Prince Guo, who was shown reading in a spring garden.  If there's any truth to reincarnation (and I don't think there is), I want to come back as a Chinese gentleman scholar.  Reading, writing, talking about what you've read and written with friends - now that's the life.

The paintings themselves are quite impressive - huge pieces that tower over the viewer.

Verdict: Go see this show - it's not terribly large, so a lunch hour is plenty of time to see everything.

Andy Warhol: Shadows

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through January 15, 2012

This is an interesting exhibit - it's one work of art by Andy Warhol.  It consists of 102 panels displayed one next to the other and it takes up almost the entire second floor of the Hirshhorn.  The rounded space is ideal for this show.

This is the first time the entire work has been displayed; I can understand why, it's enormous.  Surprisingly enough, it doesn't take that long to walk through it, as the panels are repetitive.  Warhol painted the screens (apparently applying the paint with a mop) in a variety of different colors.  Then, he silkscreened one of two shadow patterns from his studio on each panel.  I won't say that when you've seen one panel, you've seen them all, but it's close.  I do wonder how they decided to order the panels - how do you know which one is first? Which one comes next?

Warhol was asked by someone if this was art, and he responded, "No.  Disco music was playing at the opening party, so this is disco decor."  Far be it from me to disagree.

Verdict: Provided you have a strong stomach for repetition, go see this piece.  It probably won't be on display in its entirely again, and it won't take that long to stroll through.

Collecting History: 125 Years of the National Philatelic Collection

Where: National Postal Museum

When: through January 9, 2012

The National Philatelic Collection is the oldest intact national stamp collection in the world.  Early on in the collection's existence, philately was not considered a discipline, and stamps were collected in a haphazard way.  That changed when, in the early 1900s, the Smithsonian received gifts of two very large collections of stamps.  In 1913, they hired a Government Philatelist, who had an office in the Arts and Industries Building.  Catherine Manning, the longest serving curator of the collection, broadened the collection to include foreign stamps.

Also on display are stamps indicating payment of the tax on marijuana.  Yes, pot used to be legal in this country (you  learn something new every day), but it was heavily taxed in order to discourage use.

The collection moved in 1969 from Arts & Industries to American History (or History & Technology, as it was called then).  In 1993, the Postal Museum was opened, and the collection has resided there ever since.

Verdict: If you are interested in stamp collecting, by all means check out this exhibit.  Otherwise, there are numerous shows closing in January, and you may want to spend your time seeing other things.

Three exhibits at American History

I use a page at the Smithsonian website to keep me informed of when exhibits are closing, and every so often, I'll discover that a show is closing very soon that I haven't seen posted before.  Whether this is because I don't check the page every day and miss postings from time to time, or because the museums decide to close things without much notice, it's always a bit disconcerting to find out that something's leaving in just a few days, and I have to fit in a trip pronto.

This happened recently with three exhibits at the American History Museum, and I set out to see them all in one lunch hour.  This worked because two of the exhibits were fairly small and the other was something I'd seen before.  Not my favorite way to see things, but at least I didn't miss them entirely.  All three of these exhibits are closing on January 8, 2012.

Robots on the Road: Stanley
The vehicle pictured here can navigate for itself, without any human intervention whatsoever.  It isn't remote controlled by a remote person - it's not controlled at all.  It's a Volkswagen Touareg that was modified for participation in the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005.  This contest took place in the desert near Las Vegas.  The purpose was to test the feasibility of automatic driving.  Although we're not quite ready to give the controls over to robots,  I've seen commercials for cars that can parallel park themselves, so perhaps the days of truly "smart" cars are not so far away.

HIV and AIDS Thirty Years Ago

Yet another exhibit at the American History Museum about HIV/AIDS, and again, no reference to the other items on display.  At this point, the other exhibits may well have been taken down, but I'm still shaking my head over the lack of coordination here.  Surely, anyone interested in one of these displays would be interested in all of them?  Why make it so difficult for visitors to find things?

This exhibit highlights the early years of the AIDS crisis, 1981-1987.  There was not only prejudice against gay people during that time; there was also a lack of interest or concern about the fact that so many people were dying.  Of course, that all changed when HIV/AIDS started to make its way into the straight population.  Just as with the other exhibits I've seen lately, it brings at all back: the fear, the horrible treatment of gay people, the religious bigotry.  Things are far from perfect today, but they're so much better than they used to be.

Bon Appetit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian

Have no fear; Julia's kitchen is not closing permanently.  It will only be off view temporarily while the west wing of the Museum's first floor is renovated.  It's a tremendously popular exhibit - any time I walk past, there are always people watching the video that plays continuously, peering in to see the kitchen itself, or comparing her cookbook collection with their own.

It's not possible to overstate Julia's influence on 20th century American cooking - if you have your choice of fresh mushrooms at the grocery store - thank her.

I'll be eager to see what the new and improved 1st floor west wing looks like when it reopens in late summer 2012, in time, one hopes for Julia's 100th birthday on August 15th.

Verdict: All of these are well worth seeing before they close next Sunday - you can even do them all at once!