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.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through November 12, 2012

Before I came to this exhibit, I knew very few things about Kazakhstan: it used to be part of the Soviet Union, and it's the home country of Borat.  Considering only one of these things is actually true, that's not a vast store of knowledge.  To say I came with an open mind is putting it mildly.

Turns out, Kazakhstan is a vast country, the largest landlocked country in the world and about four times the size of Texas.  Nomads have been traveling there for thousands of years, and it's a bridge between Iran and China - a sort of East/West crossroads.

The show demonstrates that these nomadic people had large networks whereby they were able to exchange goods and artistic ideas.  The earlier works (and I do mean earlier - they had two petroglyphs on display that weren't new in the Iron Age) were very realistic portrayals of animals, especially horses, which were very important in their culture.  Later art, influenced by contact with people in what is now Iran, showed more fanciful creatures, winged cats, for instance.

One of the ways in which archeologists have found out about these people is by examining the items included in their burial mounds.  They left no written records, so the only clues to their lives are the objects they left behind.  The permafrost has acted to preserve these remains, even the cloth and leather that you might expect to have disintegrated long ago.  Like the Egyptians, they equipped their dead with items they might need in the afterlife, including horses, sadly for those animals put to death upon the demise of their owner.  The carving is tremendously impressive, especially when you realize they had only very primitive tools.

Verdict: Well worth a look; the artistry is amazing and where else can you learn so much about ancient Kazakhstan?

Directions: Antonio Rovaldi

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through November 11, 2012

The latest in the Hirshhorn's Directions series, this video is called "The Opening Day."  It features two screens, one shows a pitcher throwing a baseball, the other shows a baseball hurtling towards a ceramic object(s).  The idea is that it's the same baseball, but I have no idea if that's true or not.  I've seen enough of these video installations to know that appearances can be deceiving!

At first, I tried to determine if the pitcher's uniform was one I recognized.  The logo was not familiar, and I was able to see that his shirt says "Fortitudo."  I don't know if that's meant to be a message, or if that's the name of an actual team.  After a while though, I became much more caught up in the video itself.  I was mentally exhorting the pitcher to break the objects, quietly cringing if he missed and happy when some knick-knack shattered into a million pieces.

What does this say about our delight in destruction?  The exhibit notes suggested that the video is meant to represent the triumph of video over the traditional arts.  I think there's plenty of room for both, so my enjoyment of the "game" doesn't really fit with this interpretation.  The thing that surprised me was how quickly I joined in the spirit of the demolition, no matter what it represents.

Verdict: This series is one of the few things I wholeheartedly recommend at the Hirshhorn - always off-beat, always thought-provoking.

More Than Meets the Eye

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through November 4, 2012

This exhibit focuses on the tools scientists use to learn more about the natural world, more than what you can see with the naked eye, and it includes some lovely photography.  In one section of the show, you can see a meteorite, which, aside from the fact that it came from outer space, is pretty dull looking.  It just seems a sort of gray color - nothing much to strike one's interest.  When viewed with a CT scan, however, it is revealed to be quite colorful.  It was formed by the collision of two asteroids and is millions of years old.  I'm always intrigued by things that are tremendously old - this may have been the oldest thing I've ever seen, now that I think about it! By examining rocks very closely, scientists can gain more information about the formation and the evolution of the planet.

In another section, there were videos playing of rituals from other cultures.  I was reminded of the video I saw at an exhibit in the African Art Museum - possibly they were the same?  Video footage provides much greater information about the way people live than still photography can.  In addition to being able to film an entire ritual, scientists can also film interviews with people and ask them questions about their lives.

Other parts of the show involved the use of tools to observe how things move, examine tiny creatures, identify specific types of birds involved in bird strikes (where a bird becomes entangled with a plane), learn about dinosaurs, examine animals' internal structure (with X-rays - I knew about this already from another exhibit I saw at Natural History) and see hard-to-see objects (like spider webs).  They even use tools to differentiate different frog calls.

Verdict: An informative exhibit - explained in language simple enough for children, or even adult non-scientists, to understand.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

In Vibrant Color: Vintage Celebrity Portraits from the Harry Warnecke Studio

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 9, 2012

I confess I was a bit disappointed with this show.  I had gotten the impression from all of the publicity (posters outside the museum, for example) that this was going to be a big show.  I expected it to be in one of the large spaces - perhaps the one used for The Black List and Hide/Seek.  Instead, it's quite a small show, in a hallway, rather than in a series of rooms.  That's not to say that this is a bad exhibit; it's just not what I had thought it would be.

Harry Warnecke came up with the idea of putting full-color pictures of celebrities in the Sunday News magazine of the New York Daily News, long before color pictures were commonplace.  His idea paid off, and the newspapers sold very well.  The notes for the exhibit explain a bit about the process of making color prints - a LOT harder than snapping a photo with your phone.

The pictures on display are from the 1930s and 1940s, and one gets a sense of who those decades' celebrities were by looking at the entertainers, sports figures and military leaders whose portraits make up the show.  The photography is quite good, especially when you consider the level of technology available to the artists at the time.

One of the subjects was General Patton - I admit, I was surprised to see what he really looked like.  I think I was expecting to see a photo of George C. Scott!

Verdict: Worth a look - won't take more than a few minutes to see it all.  Easy to combine this with another exhibit or a stroll around the permanent collection.

Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through October 14, 2012

This is the latest in the Portrait Gallery's "Portraiture Now" series and focuses on Asian-American artists, both those of Asian descent who were born in America, and those born in Asia who have immigrated to America.  Seven artists' work is on display; each has a unique perspective on the Asian-American experience.

The highlight of the exhibit for me was the work of CYJO, who was born in Korea, and raised in the US.  She has taken photographs of Koreans living outside Korea, and along with the gorgeous pictures, the subject of each portrait has some comments about being Korean and living outside Korea.  Between the photo and the commentary, you felt as if you connected with the person and gained an understanding of their lives.  I was reminded of a former colleague of mine, a man who had immigrated to the US from Korea many years previous to our meeting.  He was one of my favorite co-workers, and I haven't seen him in quite a while, so I was happy to be able to remember him.

Another artist whose work I enjoyed very much is Roger Shimomura.  He uses cartoon imagery to depict the stereotypes surrounding Asian Americans.  The work I liked best was "Shimomura Crossing the Delaware," which pictures the artist as George Washington and Japanese samurai as Revolutionary War soldiers.  The waves reminded me quite a bit of Hokusai, the artist I saw so much this summer at the Freer and Sackler.

Shizu Saldamando (of Mexican and Japanese parentage) paints pictures of Asian-Americans using wood as her background, rather than canvas.  Very interesting - don't think I've seen that before.  Hye Yeon Nam's videos of herself in awkward situations (walking with planks strapped to her feet, trying to drink from a glass with a hole in it, sitting at a table with a chair that is sloped downwards) bring out the feelings of "not fitting in" that immigrants can have in their adopted country.  It occurred to me that perhaps everyone else should have some sort of awkward impairment as well - how many of us feel totally at ease in our surroundings all the time?

Verdict: This is a very interesting show, worth a quick look if you're pressed for time, but repays further examination if you can manage it.

Pushing Boundaries: Portraits by Robert Weingarten

Where: Ripley Center

When: through October 14, 2012

This exhibit couldn't have come at a better time; just as my faith in Washington exhibits was fading, after that ridiculous John Cage display, here is a wonderful show by an incredibly talented and inventive artist.

It's a bit difficult to describe the pictures on display, but I will try - bear with me.  Weingarten contacts famous people (I saw portraits of sports figures, politicians, Supreme Court justices, actors and more) and asks them for a list of the items that have been important to them in their lives.  They could be objects, places or ideas - anything that has had an influence on the person, that has made the person who he/she is now.  He then takes the list and sets out to photograph the items mentioned.  Once he has the photographs, he uses digital imaging technology to put them together into one picture, which becomes a portrait of the person in question.

There is usually one central image that dominates the picture, and which one would immediately associate with the person.  The photo above is of Sandra Day O'Connor's portrait, and the dominant image is of the Supreme Court chamber where the justices hear oral arguments.  When you look more closely, you see other items, things that don't pop out at you right away.  It's fun to try to identify all of the images in the pictures.  I also tried guessing the identity of the portrait's subject.

I was reminded of the portraits I saw at The Black List exhibit at the Portrait Gallery.  There, you had only the person, with a plain background, nothing extraneous to distract you from the individual.  Here, you have the opposite: the person is never pictured, only things that make up his or her life.  Which is the truer portrait?  Which gives you the clearer picture?  A thought-provoking show.

I realize I haven't commented on the photography itself, which is also amazing.

Verdict: Don't miss this terrific show - great photography, great portraiture and a very innovative way to depict a person's life.