Saturday, June 23, 2012

African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond

Where: American Art Museum

When: through September 3, 2012

This show is an examination of African American art from the 1920s through the 1990s.  Forty-three artists' works are on display, and the overall theme of this show is art, identity and the rights of the individual.  This is a large show, over 100 works, so allow plenty of time to take this all in.

Several pieces caught my eye, including "Afro Emblems" by Hale Woodruff, which was influenced by African art, interesting I thought, as most African art tends to be sculpture or carvings, and this is a painting; "Light Blue Nursery" by Alma Thomas, I love the colors, even though it's an abstract, not usually my favorite genre, and "Thornbush Blues Totem" by John Scott, which is described as a sculpture of jazz.  Several of the pieces mentioned Native Americans, and I was reminded of the show I saw at the American Indian Museum on the intersection of African and Native Americans, now on display in New York.

There are many things to like in this show, but the organization is hard to fathom.  Granted, these are all works by African Americans in the 20th century, but the exhibit is so large, that there needs to be more sorting done for the viewer.  My first thought is that a chronological arrangement would have been good.  Older pieces first, later pieces at the end.  It would have been easy to see how African American art has changed over the years, in response to changing circumstances or trends in the art world generally.  You could also have put all of the photography together, all of the sculpture together, all of the realist paintings together, all of the abstracts together.  Then you could compare genres, to see how the expression of the African American experience is different depending on the medium of the artist.

Instead, everything seems put up in a hodge-podge manner: time periods, genre and media mixed, so that the viewer has to make his or her own organization, in addition to looking at the art.  It seems a lot of work!

Verdict: There's plenty of good things to see here - I'm glad to have been introduced to the work of Alma Thomas - but there's not much in the way of structure. 

Modern Lab: Material Interventions

Where: National Gallery, East Building

When: through August 12, 2012

I confess I've developed some pretty low expectations for shows in the Modern Lab.  It's a little room full of weirdness, in my view.  This current exhibit does nothing to mitigate my reservations.

The pieces on display all use unconventional materials, which are supposed to "inform content and convey meaning."  I'm afraid I left uninformed.  None of the pieces really drew me in, or made me want to examine them more closely.  I do appreciate that the artists have used odd things in their art and have combined different types of art together in a sort of hybrid form, but none of it makes me want to get all this meaning and context that the odd materials are conveying.

Verdict: If you like modern art, you can see this little show without spending a huge amount of time.  If your taste in art tends towards the less bizarre, give this a miss.

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through August 12, 2012

I've not blogged in two weeks - last week, I didn't get to any museums, but I made up for it this week by hitting three shows.  The first is this exhibit of Joan Miro works now on at the National Gallery.   It's an enormous show; you can only get through it in an hour if you do not dawdle.  If you want to spend a bit more time, allow for two outings, or see it on a weekend.  It's on two floors, so you'll get some exercise walking up the circular staircase.

Miro used ladders in many of his works.  On a symbolic level, he used the ladder to escape from the harsh conditions of his life into the freedom of his imagination.  He also used the ladder to descend once again to document the oppression he saw around him.  Miro's definition of an artist is, "one who, amidst the silence of others, uses his voice to say something."  I was excited by this opening description and prepared for some moving and confrontational art.  What I saw, however, left me wanting.

In his early career, his art was observational: paintings of his surroundings, which put me in mind of the embroidery of the woman who escaped the Nazis in Poland and sewed a story of her early life many years later.  Her art was on display at the Ripley Gallery a while ago.  It's funny how a small village in Poland can look so much like a small village in Spain, perhaps because the paintings are not meant to be as realistic as a photograph, but were meant to convey the feeling of living in a village, among a close group of family and friends.

Later, Miro's work became more abstract, due to the influence of surrealist artists then active in Paris.  He viewed these paintings as more "true" than if they had been painted from nature.  I was reminded of the exhibit of view paintings I saw earlier this year - how they would alter the landscape a bit to make things prettier than they are in real life in order to give their customers the views they kept in their minds, rather than the less romantic views that are actually there.

Miro went through several periods in his career, in response to conditions in Spain and throughout Europe.  In the 1930s, he experimented with non-traditional materials, sand and tar,  in order to "assassinate" painting.  This is where he starts to lose me - everything is just called "Painting," and it's difficult to see the value of it.  Granted, he's not using paint or canvas, but so what?  If the only thing your piece has going for it is the fact that it's not traditional, that just doesn't say much to me.

His paintings from the Spanish Civil War period are anguished, as one might expect.  I understand his feelings of horror as his country was swallowed up in dreadful violence.  What I can't quite get is how the paintings reflect this.  They seem to me to be just stick figures and blotches of color; I do get the feeling of sadness, but I'm not moved the way I would be with a bit more realism.  I want to like these, I really do, but it's all just flying over my head.

Towards the end of the show are his Constellation paintings - I'm not sure how I feel about these.  I like his use of color, but they seem like just so many blobs to me.

I think the value of this show, for me personally, is that it's raised a question in my mind.  If an artist creates a piece and says that it is meant to show his feelings on a particular issue (war, oppression, injustice), is that what it, in fact, does show?  And, if I can't see that, what does that say about me, the viewer?  If I see something completely different, is my interpretation wrong?  I have no good answers to these questions, but I feel that this will rattle around in my brain for a while.

Verdict: If you like Miro, do not miss this extensive retrospective of his works.  Allow plenty of time, as this is a big show.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

X-Ray Vision: Fish Inside Out

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through August 5, 2012

I had been planning to write that this was the first exhibit I'd seen in a while that wasn't an art show, but now, having seen it, I'm not sure if I can say that or not.  The show commentary takes the view that this is a union of science and art, and that the X-rays of fish on display are works of art.  I've been debating the question in my mind and am not sure I've come up with an answer.

The Natural History Museum owns a "fish library."  This is a collection of fish specimens, kept in a special alcohol solution in order to preserve them, that sit on shelves and can be retrieved for study by scientists.  They are arranged in evolutionary order (love that concept).  Although I've worked in libraries for over 20 years, I had never heard of a fish library before.  I'm charmed by the idea that somewhere, far from the glamor of the main museum and its admiring visitors, there are people toiling in obscurity not just to preserve particular examples of fish, but to keep them organized so that future researchers can learn more from them.  Many of the fish in the library are quite old; some of specimens date from the 1800s.  The fact that they are still available for study is a testament to the skill and dedication of generations of museum workers.  The Smithsonian's fish library is the largest (over 5 million specimens), most diverse and most important fish library in the world.  I have no idea how one measures the importance of a fish library, but I'm not about to quibble with their self-designation.

One way that scientists are able to study these specimens is through the use of x-rays.  Rather than having to dissect a specimen, destroying it in the process, in order to learn about the fish's inner working, an x-ray allows the researcher to see "what's inside" without any damage to the specimen.  Rather like having your cake and eating it too.  The exhibit is a display of many fish x-rays, along with some actual specimens (in jars, just like in your high school science lab).  The detail is impressive; you can see individual vertebrae on some species and details of scales on others.

The opportunity to see how the fish are put together is great, and the x-rays are lovely, but are they art?  I have no doubt that photography generally is art, and that x-rays are related to photography, sort of an internal picture rather than an external one.  Where I have the difficulty is deciding if the transitive property holds: if photography is art, and x-rays are photography, are then x-rays art?  I'm inclined to come down on the negative side here, but I'm open to persuasion.  It seems to me that photography is art when the photographer composes a scene, or waits for just the right lighting, or makes some sort of statement about the human condition.  Do fish x-rays fall into this category?  Great topic for panel discussion...

Verdict: Well worth seeing, and less crowded than the typical Natural History Museum display.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Winged Spirits: Birds in Chinese Painting

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through August 5, 2012

For the first time in a long time, I saw some Asian art that wasn't from Japan!  Not that I have anything against Japanese art, far from it, but having exhausted the shows of the "Japan Spring," I was ready to reacquaint myself with the art of China.

Birds are ubiquitous in Chinese visual culture; specific types have symbolic meanings, especially when they are paired with flowers.  The paintings are lovely to look at even if you don't understand the meaning, but they are a sort of Rebus puzzle, and if you know what each element in the painting represents, you can read the message the work contains.  Early bird paintings are quite realistic; later works were modeled after earlier paintings and became more expressionistic.  They were no longer merely representations of birds; they had become primarily works of art.

The paintings are lovely, although many of them have darkened over the years, which makes them hard to see.  Those that are better preserved show a wonderful attention to detail and fantastic colors.  I was reminded of "The Colorful Realm," in which all creation comes to worship the Buddha, by a painting entitled "A Hundred Birds Worship the Phoenixes."  I was also reminded of the Noah's Ark paintings I saw in the Castiglione exhibit; people certainly do seem to have the idea that animals will line up to worship deities, just as human beings will - not sure I can agree with that idea.

Verdict: It's always worth a trip to the Freer, and this exhibit does not disappoint.  It's easily managed in a lunch hour, and the crowds are small, even in the summer.

I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938–2010

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through August 5, 2012

This show consists of photographs of people on city streets, buses and subways, a photo gallery of urban inhabitants.  Some of the pictures were taken in the late 1930s and 1940s; others are only a couple of years old.

I have mixed feelings about this show - so many of the photographs were taken without the subjects' knowledge.  There's something intrusive about the photos - a lack of respect for people's privacy and more than a hint of voyeurism.  I tried to get past this feeling of barging into someone's life, but couldn't quite manage it.  There seems a lack of respect for the people in the photographs - as if their privacy is secondary to another person's artistic expression.  The fact that I'm going to see the show makes me culpable as well, of course - all in all, unnerving.  That having been said, I'll now attempt to put those feelings aside and review the exhibit as artwork.

The first set of photos were taken in the 1930s and 1940s on the New York City subway by Walker Evans.  He hid his camera in his coat and took photos of people sitting across the aisle from him.  What I found most interesting is how dressed up many of his subjects were.  I'm guessing they were simply on their way into town to shop, or on their way home from such a trip, but there were many women in furs and hats.  The subway was, if not luxurious, at least clean.  Evans seemed to have some sense that what he was doing was questionable, as he waited 20 years to publish his photographs.  The problem with hiding one's camera, especially in a time without the technology available to us in the 21st century, is that the photos themselves are not that great.  They're interesting; they give you the sense that you're sitting with the people and sharing their trip, but they're really just snapshots.

Evans also took photographs of people in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  He set up his camera openly on a street corner, but still surprised people as they came around the corner and were photographed unexpectedly.  A different setting than the subway photos, but they suffer from the same problem.  When you're taking snapshots, you get a "slice of life," but you don't get the same information about a person that you get from a posed photograph.  You might think that candids are just that - more candid, and I suppose that's true, but I remember seeing the portraits in the exhibit, "The Black List" at the Portrait Gallery, and those revealed quite a bit about their subjects, and were beautiful photos besides.

Also represented in the show is Robert Frank, who took a series of photographs entitled, "From the Bus."  The idea behind this project is that he rode a New York City bus in the late 1950s and took pictures of what he saw out the window.  It's an intriguing idea, and a challenge.  I like the idea of placing limits on yourself in your art - it forces you to become more creative.  Harry Callahan also did some technically challenging work; his "Chicago" series of photos of women he saw on the street lost in thought are compelling.  I was uncomfortable looking at them though - I walk down the street all the time lost in thought in just the same way.  Do I want to see my photo hanging in the National Gallery?

Bruce Davidson's New York City subway series was an interesting companion piece to Evans' series.  Davidson took his photos in 1980-1981 and 1985, what was really the nadir of the New York City subway.  The differences between his photos and Evans are startling.  If you didn't know this was the same subway system, you'd never believe it.   Evans' subway is clean and his subjects are calm; Davidson's subway is filthy and his subjects all look on edge - as if they might need to run or fight for their lives at any moment.  Davidson got permission from his subjects to take their photos, so I felt no unease in looking at the shots.  Most people he approached agreed to be photographed - others, however, were distinctly uncooperative.

The show ends with several pieces by Philip-Lorca Dicorcia.  The exhibit notes describe his subjects as anonymous.  Well, really, I thought, they're not anonymous.  They all have names and lives and families and friends.  He calls his photos of individual people "Head" with a number.  I had to roll my eyeballs at that.  If you won't find out someone's name, you could at least come up with a better title from them than "Head."

Also on display just outside the exit from the show is a video by Beat Streuli taken in 2009 in Manhattan.  It's just a movie of the street and people walking past the camera.  People have now become so accustomed to being recorded that they don't bat an eye at the video recorder.  Far from having to hide one's interest in others, the photographer can just set up shop on the street  and let his subjects come to him.

Verdict: This is certainly a thought-provoking show.  I can't describe it as containing great art, and I felt uncomfortable looking at many of the pieces, but it is worth going to see for the issues it raises.  A great subject, I think, for panel discussion.