Saturday, February 25, 2012

Black Box: Ali Kazma

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through April 30, 2012

Anyone who's read this blog for any period of time knows my views on the Hirshhorn, so I won't repeat them here.  If you're new, just search for any other blog post about a show at the Hirshhorn, and you'll get the picture quickly.

One of the things I really like at the concrete doughnut is their "Black Box" series of films.  You have to go in expecting weird cinema, because it's not as if you're going to get plot or character development or witty dialogue here, but that's alright, I love these things anyway.  "Floating McDonald's" remains my favorite, but this film by Ali Kazma called "O.K. 2010" does not disappoint.

It's seven screens of a person (I'm assuming it's the same person shot from different angles, but it could be several people) stamping a pile of documents.  Over and over, they stamp page after page at breakneck speed.  The museum's commentary suggests that perhaps the stamping was done much more slowly and the film merely sped up to suggest lightning-quick reflexes, but I'm not so sure.  I once took a tour of the Government Printing Office (is my life one long series of thrilling moments or what?) and saw people checking pages numbers on books at about this pace, so anything's possible.

One discordant note I found was that the person is dressed in a suit and tie - surely that's a bit overdressed for a job stamping documents?  It occurred to me that watching this would be an efficiency expert's dream - how should the person position the stack of paper to minimize discomfort; where should the stamp inker be put to ease re-inking the stamp?  One of the less exciting aspects of my job is that I have to file books called loose-leafs.  They are basically binders with loose pages in them - new pages go in, old pages go out.  I was able to watch someone do a job more onerous than that, so I'll view it with less repugnance the next time I set at it.

Verdict: "Black Box" videos are always worth a look - this is no exception. 

Stamps of Approval

Where: Smithsonian Castle

When: through April 29, 2012

I like going to the Castle; it's a beautiful building, and one can remember what the Smithsonian used to be  - one museum with a hodgepodge of items all jumbled together.  If you've not been to the Castle before, it's well worth a visit, regardless of what's exhibited there.

This show features several of the 20th century items shown on stamps issued by the Postal Service in their Pioneers of American Industrial Design collection.  It occurs to me that the Postal Museum might have been a more logical location for this show, but it's more convenient for me to go to the Castle, so I'm not complaining.

These items are the work of industrial designers, who shaped the look of life in 20th century America.  In the 1920s, companies began to hire these people, to give their products a modern, streamlined appearance.  My favorite items on display were the Fiestaware pitchers designed by Frederick Hurlen Rhead - the shape and the colors are wonderful.

Many more of these items are on display at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York; I'd never thought much about this museum since it's not in DC, but now I think I'd enjoy a trip.

Verdict: Do go see this show - everything on display has a marvelous look to it - well worth some time to admire.

In the Tower: Mel Bochner

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through April 29, 2012

On the same day that I saw the library exhibit (described above), I also trekked up to the East Building's Tower to see their current show.  I think I've mentioned before that the Tower rooms are really a Hirshhorn in miniature - very modern art, which fills me with a desire to roll my eyes.

The current offering is Mel Bochner, and I must admit, it was less ridiculous than many things I've seen in this space.  The large room is filled with works similar to the one pictured:  canvases with words painted on them.  Each has a theme, and as the words proceed down the page, the language becomes less erudite and more slang.   I really like the bright colors, and it's fun to think of other words Bochner might have included.  One of the paintings is entitled DIE and one of the phrases is "go home feet first."  I've never heard this expression, but I plan to incorporate it into my vocabulary.

The Gallery commentary on the exhibit alerts us to the fact that, because Bochner is painting words, the paintings require us to read and see at the same time.  Surely, one cannot read without seeing?  I think I understand what they mean, but one cannot help but frown at this awkward wording.

Verdict: One of the few shows I've seen in the Tower that's worth the journey.

In the Library: Marks of Ownership

Where: National Gallery of Art Library, East Building

When: through April 27, 2012

Yet another exhibit in the National Gallery's library, yet another opportunity to wish I worked there.  I'm sure it's like any workplace: full of tedium, punctuated by meaningless drama, but to the casual visitor, it seems an idyllic escape from the outside world.

The current exhibit deals with bookplates - those things you stick in a book to indicate that it belongs to you.  I'm sure I once received some bookplates (if I remember correctly, they featured a cat), but I don't know that I've ever used them.

Bookplates came into use with the invention of movable type.  Owners had to find a way to show that particular copies of books belonged to them.  Bookplates were the most popular way to do this, although some people bound the books in a particular way to show they were part of the owner's collection.  Edward Minman Martin, Esq. pasted an engraving of himself in the front cover - no need to worry another Edward Minman Martin might make off with his property.

I found out that a book's provenance can be more difficult to establish than that of a work of art, and bookplates can be quite helpful to the researcher in determining who has owned a book.  Among the pieces on display, one book contains a bookplate indicating it belonged to Edith Wharton and several bookplates included verses with warnings to thieves.  There were also some library-themed bookplates, not much of a stretch, but one even included an engraving of a librarian.

Verdict: A small show, easily seen in a lunch hour, and quite interesting if you like books.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection Highlights

Where: African Art Museum

When: through April 15, 2012

In 1959, Paul and Ruth Tishman began collecting African art.  When asked why they chose to do so, Paul Tishman compared it to falling in love - how could it be explained?  They set out to collect objects from every region of the continent, perhaps an impossible task.  In 1984, they sold their pieces to the Walt Disney Corporation, which was intending to display them publicly.  This project never came to fruition, and, in 2005, Disney gave the collection to the Smithsonian, where it has remained to this day.

What is on display is a small portion of the collection, about 64 items out of  525 pieces total.  This show has been "on" since 2009, and has been slated to close several different times.  I've wondered if I'd ever see it, as they kept extending its stay!  They may have a new show coming now, as it seems as if the exhibit really is closing this time.

As someone who knows next to nothing about African art, I always find it a bit intimidating to go to shows at this museum.  There's lots to see here - a dizzying array of carvings, functional items, masks, figures of both people and animals.  What occurred to me as I was leaving is that there is no painting, and as I thought about it, I realized that any time I've seen traditional African art, it's been carving, never paint on canvas.  Why that is, I know not.

Verdict: If you like African art, don't miss this exhibit.  The collection is extensive and even this sampling gives you a sense of the scale of the entire thing. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mark Rothko: Seagram Murals

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through April 15, 2012

 I had quite a time finding this exhibit, so I'm going to give detailed instructions on how to find it - you can benefit from my confusion!  First of all, the website indicates that this is on the ground level, the same floor as the Antico exhibit.  This is incorrect.  It is, in fact, on the concourse level, down a flight of stairs from the small gift shop outpost in the East Building.  Proceed to your right, past the Matisse cut-outs, which have their own separate room.  If you get to the Calder mobiles, you've gone too far.

Okay, now that you know how to get to the paintings, let me tell you what you'll see once there.  Rothko was given a commission to design some paintings for the Four Seasons dining room in the Seagrams Building.  He got a little carried away, and painted 30 pieces, when the space could only fit seven.  Eventually, he decided that a restaurant was not the best venue for his works and abandoned the commission.  On display are three of his works (if I'd known the exhibit was so small, I would have combined this with the Antico exhibit).  The colors are all what you see above - red/rust with orange - not the happiest combination, in my view.

Verdict: Why not have a look at them if you're in the East Building for something else?  I wouldn't necessarily make a separate trip, but it might be worth it if you're a Rothko fan. 

Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through April 8, 2012

This exhibit is illustrative of the reason I go to see the special shows at the Smithsonian and the National Gallery.  They are often on a subject about which I know nothing, and I learn an enormous amount, in a short period of time and for free.  Truly, DC is a great place to live (despite what you might hear on TV or from various politicians) and I thank my lucky stars I'm able to take advantage of the many cultural events it offers.

During the late 1400s and early 1500s, many excavations of ancient sites took place and this fostered a great interest in classical sculpture.  As there were not enough original pieces to go around, those wishing to have these types of works in their homes turned to sculptors, preeminent among them Antico, to make reproductions.  This is the first exhibit of his works in the United States and features over 3/4 of his existing pieces.  Antico, so called because he was considered to have such a great understanding of Greek and Roman art, not only reproduced antiquities, he also invented the pieces of classical sculpture that were missing - noses, arms, sometimes even entire heads.
In one of the display cases, there is an original of Hercules (at least it is believed to be original) and two copies by Antico.  It's wonderful to be able to see his work, alongside that which he was trying to imitate.

In addition to bronze, Antico also used gold and silver to enhance his works.  Frequently, the eyes of a piece would be silvered.  Frankly, I found that a bit creepy!

Verdict:  Go see this show - it's not terribly large, so it's easily managed in a lunch hour, and it's very interesting, even for the novice in this type of art.

150th Commemoration of the Civil War: The Death of Ellsworth

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through March 18, 2012

The National Portrait Gallery is marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War by mounting four alcove exhibits, one each year.  The first in the series is composed of artwork and artifacts concerning the death of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth.  Not being much of a Civil War buff, I had never heard of Ellsworth or his death before I went to see this exhibit, so I learned quite a bit.

Ellsworth was the first Union officer killed in the war.  Frances Brownell, who killed his assailant, bequeathed the weapons used in the incident to the Smithsonian, and they are on display here.  It's one thing to see an artist's rendition or even a photograph of an event - it's another to see an actual item from the event.  It makes it that much more real.  Ellsworth was a friend of President Lincoln and commanded a regiment of New York Zouaves, whose colorful uniforms Ellsworth himself designed.

Verdict: Do go see this exhibit - it's quite small, so it won't take very much time to see.  I'm now eagerly awaiting the next show in the series.


Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through March 11, 2012

This show is a selection of contemporary prints contained in the permanent collection of the museum.  Yet again, perhaps due to the economy, but perhaps not, the Smithsonian has used its own collection to create a special exhibit.   As someone who only goes to see special exhibits, I like this idea - it gives me a chance to see works I wouldn't ordinarily get to see.  I remember when the economy first tanked, the National Gallery decided to put on some shows of works they owned, and I thought it was a nice way to take the lemons of insufficient funding to put on shows with works from other institutions and make lemonade, in this case, very interesting shows with local art.

All that having been said, I found this show a bit unfocused.  The underlying theme is that each of these works is either part of a series (one of a "multiple" work of art) or features multiples of an image.  This isn't really enough to tie the show together.  There are so many different artists and so many different genres of art that it's hard to get a handle on anything.

I did see several pieces that I liked, however.  "Land Origin" by Lou Stovall was quite good - I liked the color scheme of magenta, green and yellow.  "Ocean Surface" by Vija Celmins, a screenprint on paper, featured an incredibly realistic water scene, and I do love paintings of water.  Perhaps the most memorable piece in the show was from the portfolio "Hindsight is Always 20/20" by R. Luke DuBois.  He takes the State of the Union message from each President and sorts the words in the speech according to how often they are used.  He then puts the most used words at the top of the piece, in very large font.  The next words, slightly less used, are in slightly smaller font - the display is reminiscent of an eye chart.  The two speeches on display are from James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, and it's interesting to see what words they used.  Maybe they'll put on a show just of this portfolio at some point - to see the full set would be fascinating.

Verdict: This show is okay, but not great.  If you've got some extra time, it's worth dropping in, but it doesn't merit a special trip.