Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dark Matters: Selections from the Collection

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through May 13, 2012

Oh, Hirshhorn.  I try to like you, I really do, and then you go and annoy me to pieces.  Why must it always be this way with you?

I went to see this show, which is supposed to be a collection of Hirshhorn pieces from the last 60 years all dealing with darkness.  I was promised a wide selection of pieces that would include items from many genres and artistic movements.  What did I actually see?  One room, containing a couple of pieces, including a piece by Joseph Beuys entitled F.I.U. Blackboards which was two black panels with a bucket containing water and a rag in front of them.  Setting aside my desire to roll my eyeballs at that great work, I looked in vain for the rest of the show.  Surely there must be more than this?  I walked all over the lower level, but to no avail.  I finally asked the guard in the room with the pail, and she said this was all there was right now.

Seriously?  This show has been up since last month - why have most of it closed off?  And if you need to close the show, why not let people know that?  I'll have to try again another day, but "Suprasensorial" aside, you're not winning me over, Hirshhorn; you're just not.

Verdict: I can't really evaluate the show based on only two pieces, but I'd make sure I had something else to see before venturing over there.

Vochol: Huichol Art on Wheels

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through May 6, 2012

I wish this would have been on display when I went to see the show on Quileute Wolves, as it would have been easy to combine them in one visit, but, no such luck.  This is worth a trip on its own, however, just because when else are you likely to see a bead covered car?

This is, quite literally, just that: a Volkswagen Beetle, covered in beads.  Two families from Mexico spent more than seven months working on this piece, which took 9,000 hours to complete and used over 2,000,000 beads.  Both the interior and exterior are beaded and the colors are wonderful.  Vochol is a combination of the Mexican name for the Beetle and the name of the craftsmens' tribe, the Huichol.  The work is amazing and is eye-catching to say the least, which is the point, I think.  It draws attention to the intersection of traditional and modern cultures, so often fraught with misunderstanding and distrust.

Verdict: Don't miss it - it's right in the lobby of the museum, so you can stop in, even if you're just walking by and only have five minutes to spare. 

Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through May 13, 2012

Believe it or not, this is an exhibit at the Hirshhorn I really liked.  Usually, I'm fed up with their shows of pretentious non-art - pieces I could have created in my garage, given a 2x4 and a gallon of paint.  This show, however is really good and well worth seeing.  It consists of the works of several Latin American artists, rarely exhibited, that were originally created in the 1950s - 1970s.  Although they came from different countries and worked in different time periods, they all tried to give viewers an experience beyond passively looking at art - in each piece, in one way or another, you become part of it - you "walk into" it.

It's several large installations, so although it covers a lot of ground, you're only seeing a few things.  I find I take my time more if I'm only looking at a half-dozen items and have a much more thoughtful experience.  Usually, I've got lots to see and only a limited amount of time, so I'm rushing through shows, perhaps having time to go back and look at something I really liked, but perhaps not.  This show allows you to spend plenty of time with each piece, so you really see it.

The first piece (not my favorite) is actually displayed over the top of the escalator.  It's a set of illuminated tubing arranged in a circular pattern on the ceiling.  Although it's neat to ride up the escalator looking at the tubing emerge and neat to ride down and see it vanish, I think the location is more impressive than the art itself.  Illuminated tubing doesn't really do much for me.  Lucio Fontana created this piece of neon sculpture for the IX Triennial of Milan in 1957.  It was refabricated in 2010.  I don't know what that means - refabricated - but I have a sneaking suspicion that someone found the tubing in a box and reassembled it as best they could.  Perhaps I'm too cynical.

The same artist, in the next exhibit space, painted monochromes and then slashed them open.  I gather this is supposed to bring the viewer into the work, but it leaves me cold.  Monochromes, really?  How is this art?  I can do this.  And, if you give me a box cutter, I can slash this stuff open too.

In the same space, is a far more interesting piece entitled Three & One by Jesus Rafael Soto.  It's really difficult to describe; I tired looking for images on the web, but none of them really convey the work.  It's 3-D - a grey background with black stripes with strings in front holding strips of nylon.  It sounds like nothing, but is great to see in person.  Another of his works, Eight Silver is in the same room - it's boxes that project from a background - as you look at the piece, it seems as if the boxes are moving - again, I can't describe it - trust me, it's very cool.

The next installation is Light in Movement, which was originally done in 1962.  I can see that this would have been interesting then - it's a room with a mirrored wall with lights reflecting off moving pieces of metallic material (paper, maybe?) that you walk through.  If you remember the disco balls of the 1970s, you've seen this before.

The next installation is Chromosaturation, which was a bit of a disappointment.  I walked past three rooms that were filled with color - one room was red, another yellow and the other was either blue or green.   I then realized that you could walk through the color saturated rooms, after putting special footwear on so as not to dirty the floors.  I thought I'd be walking into a room of color, but no such thing.  When you're in the room, you just see it as white - it's when you're outside looking in that the colors are really visible.  My rule: if you're going to make me look ridiculous in oversize slippers, I better get something out of it.  If you go to the show, skip this part.

The exhibit completely redeemed itself with the final two installations.  The first was another offering from my new enthusiasm, Jesus Rafael Soto, called Blue Penetrable BBL.  It's pictured above, so I won't describe it, except to say that you get to walk through it - it's really okay to touch the art.  As you walk through, you feel surrounded by "blue-ness" meaning not sadness, but simply by the color blue.  Watching other people walk through is also part of the fun.

The last installation was Cosmococa - Program in Progress, CC1 Trashiscapes which means I know not what, but is a room filled with big cushions and pillows on which you sit or lie down.  In the room, video images flash on the walls and music is playing.  It's not so much that the images themselves are of any great interest; it's watching how other people react to them that makes this so great.  When I was there, I saw a young couple holding hands and an older couple, making use of the room to rest from what I assume was a long day of museum visits.  The person I remember best, however, is a young girl - maybe 12 years old, who was dancing to the music.  Clearly, she had studied ballet, as her movements were very precise and her exuberance was quite contained.  Every time the music changed, her dance changed slightly, as well.  I enjoyed watching her very much - it's a pity she's not there all the time.

Verdict: Rare as it is for me to recommend a Hirshhorn show, I'm going to recommend this one - great fun.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Behind the Scenes: The Real Story of Quileute Wolves

Where: Nation Museum of the American Indian

When: through May 9, 2012

Unbeknownst to me, the Twilight series of books (which I have never read) feature a character who is not only a werewolf but also a member of the Quileute tribe.  The tribe seems to have a love/hate relationship with the books, on the one hand, they bring lots of tourists (and tourist dollars) to their area, but on the other hand, they encourage misconceptions about the tribe among those who read the novels.  This exhibit is an attempt to set the record straight.

The tribe does have a strong bond with wolves, so one can see where the Twilight author would have gotten the idea for a Quileute werewolf character.  The tribe creation mythology involves wolves, and there is a society of men within the tribe that is associated with wolves.  They are not, however, werewolves.  On display is some tribal art, both some fine carvings done by adults and remarkably detailed drawings of tribe rituals and ceremonies done by children in the schools set up in the early 1900s.

Verdict: This is a relatively small show, so it's easily managed in a lunch hour.  I would like to have seen more carvings, as the ones on display were quite impressive.

"Something of Splendor": Decorative Arts from the White House

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: through May 6, 2012

I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to see this show, and I wasn't relishing the long walk over to the Renwick and back (which eats into the time I have for exhibit viewing), but in the event, it was a wonderful show and a wonderful day for a walk, so it couldn't have been a better trip.  Washington, DC is having an early spring - the cherry blossom trees are flowering as I type, a good two weeks earlier than normal.  The White House area was decked with Union Jacks and American flags to greet Prime Minister Cameron who was paying a visit, making for a festival atmosphere at Lafayette Park.

The show itself is great - lots of furniture, serving pieces and other decorative items from the White House.  It's quite interesting to see how tastes have changed in the last 200+ years.  The show celebrates the 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association, and many of the pieces have never been seen outside of the White House before.

I learned that the Theodore Roosevelt administration saw an extensive renovation of the White House, giving the reception rooms their current look.  The highlight of the show for me was seeing one of the Gustav Stickley bookcases that Edith Roosevelt bought to display some of the White House china, the precursor to the China Room.  I love Stickley furniture, and I don't think I've ever seen a real original Stickley piece before.

Jackie Kennedy initiated an ongoing museum program to preserve the White House's furnishings and decorations, so we have her to thank for this collection.  One of the most interesting items on display is a small box, lined with wallpaper from the Madison administration, picked by Dolley Madison herself.  This is one of the few things left from the original White House, which was burned by the British during the War of 1812.

I very much liked the Lincoln china pattern, several pieces of which were on display.  The accent color is a reddish-purple, new at the time.  It makes a nice change from the seemingly endless blue pieces.  Another interesting piece is a coverlet for the bed in the Lincoln bedroom, made by Grace Coolidge.  Her hope is that future First Ladies would each make something for the house, but to date, she is the only person to have done so.  There is a piece of furniture made at Val-Kill, the factory on Franklin Roosevelt's estate, Hyde Park.  Eleanor Roosevelt brought the piece to the White House.

A fun fact: the Benjamin Harrisons were afraid of electric light - the servants had to turn the lights on and off for them.  That's what I love about going to these exhibits - you learn so many odd little things.

Verdict: This is a show well worth the time to see.  Fun, interesting, educational - something for everyone.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Picasso's Drawings, 1890–1921: Reinventing Tradition

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through May 6, 2012

According to the exhibit introduction, Picasso was one of the world's greatest draftsmen.  I'd always thought of him as a cubist painter whose work I didn't much appreciate, but this exhibit shows another side of his work, one I liked rather more.

This show features drawings from the first three decades of his career; the first offering is a drawing of a statue of Hercules owned by his family.  I thought it wasn't bad, until I read that he was nine years old when he drew it!  Really, really good for a nine-year old.

The still lifes on display are quite linear; you can see the cubism emerging.  The two pieces I liked the best ("Bottle and Wineglass" and "Composition with a Violin") were both done in 1912.  There's an Art Deco feel to both of them that appealed to me very much.

This is a much smaller show than I had anticipated; it's only three rooms, and so easily managed in a lunch hour viewing.  Because Picasso's style changed so much over the course of 30 years, there's a wide variety of genres on view here.  It's got something for everyone!  My only complaint is that it's also very popular, so expect to share your experience with many of your closest friends. 

Verdict: Go see this show for another look at Picasso - it's time well spent. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Black List: Photographs by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through April 22, 2012

Usually the term blacklist is used to describe a group of people excluded from something, people who are not wanted or are undesirable.  Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell decided to give a new meaning to the term, to create a new Black List - one that people would want to be on.  Greenfield-Sanders photographed 50 prominent African-Americans, and Mitchell interviewed them.  Both the photographs and the interviews are on display in this exhibit.  It is by no means an exhaustive look at every prominent or important African-American; Greenfield-Sanders and Mitchell acknowledge this in the opening description of the show.  Sadly, not everyone they wanted to include was available for the project, so some people are conspicuous by their absence.

One interesting thing about the exhibit is that even though one photographer took all the pictures, and they all are photographed against very plain backgrounds, and they are almost all face forward shots,  there's nothing boring about the show.  Greenfield-Sanders is such a talented photographer that his subject's personality comes through and grabs your attention.  The text included with each photograph is interesting as well.  I had no idea that Whoopi Goldberg came up with her stage name by combining the whoopie cushion and a nod to Jewish comedians.  I'd never really thought about her name before, but now I know the background.

I went to the show with a friend of mine, and we watched some of the interviews before the press of work called us away.  I don't know what questions Mitchell asked to elicit people's commentary on their lives and careers, but it's really intriguing to see the photographs and then hear those people talking - a very inventive combination, and one I think the museum might have highlighted more.  I didn't know there were videos until I was in the exhibit.

Verdict: Do go see this show - it's a combination of great photography, current history and thought-provoking interviews.

Art of the Stamp: Owney the Postal Dog

Where: National Postal Museum

When: through April 30, 2012

I confess I'm rarely excited to see an exhibit at the Postal Museum.  I've tried very hard in the past to be enthusiastic about this museum, but, unless you're a total stamp nut, it's hard to get worked up about the postal industry.  I have seen some interesting shows there; the one on FDR and Depression-era stamps was quite good, but generally, I go more for the exercise involved in walking over to Union Station than because I'm anticipating a show that will live in my memory forever.  This display (it's really too small to be called a show) is much in keeping with the rest of the museum: informative, but nothing to write home about.

Owney was a terrier mix who used to go with his owner when he worked at the Albany Post Office in the late 1880s.  When his owner got a new job, Owney stayed on with the Postal Service, eventually becoming the mascot of the Railway Mail Service.  He traveled on the mail trains and picked up numerous tags along the way, given to him by mail clerks to mark his journeys.  The final stamp shows Owney's profile with a background of tags.

There is more information about Owney in the rest of the museum, including Owney himself! Apparently, after his death, someone stuffed him and he's now on display.

Verdict: If you love stamps, or are in the Union Station area with a few minutes weighing heavy on your hands, check this out.  Otherwise, feel free to give it a miss.