Saturday, October 27, 2012

Inuit Art, Culture, and Environment

Where: Ripley Center

When: through December 2, 2012

In addition to its International Gallery, the large space where big exhibits are held, the Ripley has two other exhibit spaces - the Concourse and the Corridor.  I'm calling these exhibit spaces in the loosest sense of the term, as they are basically hallways.  The Corridor is actually the hallway leading from the Concourse to the International Gallery and the Concourse is the large space at the bottom of the escalator from the Mall.

The Concourse is not the best place to see an exhibit, as it's so clearly not designed for displays.  It's distracting, as there are lots of doors leading off to various offices and a water fountain.  Nevertheless, I've seen some interesting things here, and this show on Inuit art continues that tradition.

It's divided into three sections; the first of which is "Culture on Cloth."  These are wall hanging created by women in an Inuit village west of Hudson Bay in Nunavut.  At one time, the Inuit lived in seasonal camps, following the caribou migration, but in the mid-20th century, due both to changes in migration patterns and population growth, the Inuit began to starve.  In response to this dire situation, the Canadian government set up permanent settlements for the Inuit, providing both health care and education.  These textiles demonstrate the transition from the old way of life to the new, and they've been on a migration of their own, having been on display in various locations since 2002.

I was reminded while I looked at these hangings of the exhibit I'd seen earlier this year (or was it last year?), by the woman who had survived World War II in Poland and then worked as a seamstress in New York, who documented her story of evading capture by the Nazis in needlework.  I'd not thought of sewing as a story-telling device before, but clearly it is.  These pieces are far more abstract than the ones I saw earlier, but the skill is apparent in both.  I particularly liked Tundra by Ruth Qaulluaryuk and Summer and Winter by Winnie Tatya; both of them feature lovely colors.

The second section is "Kinngait to Ulukhaktok: Artist as Cultural Historian."  It shows works of Inuit graphic artists, who are continuing the oral story-telling traditions of the past in their documentation of the transition from a migratory life to one of living in a settled community.

The third section is "Exploring the Eastern Inuit World."  The Maritime Far Northeast is one of the world's least-known geographic regions.  It comprises Maine, the Maritimes, Greenland and Nunavut.  Based on the pictures, it has a truly unforgiving climate.  It appears to be snowed in for much of the year, especially in the northern-most areas.  Of course, the climate is changing, so one wonders how much longer the snow will continue to fall in such abundance.  One can only hope that the Inuit can adapt once again to a changing environment.

Verdict: This is a very interesting show.  I found that it complemented the show on Arctic lives at the American Indian Museum very well, so if you can manage both shows in one day or close together, it's worth doing so. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fly Marines! The Centennial of Marine Corps Aviation: 1912-2012

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through January 6, 2013

Yet another show at the Air and Space Museum, and once again, I walk away thinking I'm just not that interested.  This exhibit features art work depicting the history of Marine Corps Aviation.  I would describe the art as serviceable - not exactly the type of thing that would hang in an art gallery.  These are from the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

I will say, it's amazing how many things are celebrating a 100th anniversary this year: L.L. Bean, Fenway Park, Julia Child's birth, the sinking of the Titanic.  1912 was an eventful year!

The information about the early years of the Marine Corps is rather interesting, but I grew weary by the time I was reading about the many accomplishments of the Corps in Vietnam.  Marine Corps aviators started at the Naval Academy and first made a combat appearance in WWI.  Between the wars, the service floundered, but they were instrumental in turning the war against the Japanese in the battles of Midway and Guadalcanal.

Verdict:  If you're interested in military history or aviation generally, go see this exhibit.  Otherwise, you can give it a miss. 

Arctic Journeys/Ancient Memories: The Sculpture of Abraham Anghik Ruben

Where: American Indian Museum

When: through January 2, 2013

I was very surprised by this exhibit; not only did it include works of art inspired by Native American sculptures, but also works of art inspired by Norse stories and sculptures.  When I come to this museum, I don't expect to see works that reflect my own ethnic background.  Yet, here are works that feature Thor and Odin!  It made me realize that people are far more connected than you think - what seems a culture unlike your own can be very similar, if you take the time to look closely.

Ruben is a sculptor who has taken as his subject here a contrast of the lives of two ancient northern people: the Norse and the Inuit.  Both groups were explorers; his work deals with this idea, along with the ideas of migration and displacement.  The polar bear is considered a powerful guardian spirit across the Arctic and his work features polar bears and other animals, whose spirits were important in these cultures.  In much of his work, I thought of the word "entwined."  The figures seem to move in and out, to come together and move apart.

Ruben uses Brazilian soapstone as his medium in many works - about as far from the Arctic as you can get.  Also featured are two impressive narwhal tusks, intricately carved.  At the back of the room, there is also a video, providing more information.

Verdict: This is a great small show - worth a look, regardless of your ethnicity!

The Serial Portrait: Photography and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through December 31, 2012

In the 19th century, photographs were generally single portraits, making a record of one moment in time.  In the 20th century, photographers began to take multiple portraits of the same person or group of people - to record their subject over a span of time.  This show is composed of the works of 20 different artists who photographed the same subject multiple times.  It is primarily composed of works in the National Gallery's collection (which shows you just how large a collection it is).  The portraits are meant to demonstrate fluctuating states of being or to mark the passage of time.  The idea of identity is inherently mutable.  I think photography is viewed as more "truthful" than painting.  The idea is that this is how someone looked at a particular time (leaving Photoshop out of the discussion for the moment) - the serial portrait plays with that idea - by showing how people change over time, it asks the question, "What is the true picture of the person?"  "Who is this person, really?"

The first photographs featured are Harry Callahan's portraits of his wife, Eleanor.  I'd seen these before, in the big Callahan retrospective at the National Gallery not long ago.  I think this is the first time I'd seen something again, so I felt quite sophisticated, being able to think, "Oh yes, I remember that photo."  Callahan was not the only artist to take pictures of his wife; we were treated to a whole slew of them, including Emmet Gowin, Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand.  I especially liked Gowin's "Edith, Danville, Virginia" which featured his wife with a shadow of leaves across her face and "Edith & Moth Flight" which was taken at night with only the available light and a long exposure - the moths seem to leave luminous traces around her face.  It turns out I'm not much more interested in pictures of Georgia O'Keefe than I am in her art, so I didn't give those more than a cursory glance.

Far more interesting was "The Brown Sisters," by Nicholas Nixon.  These are photos of the artist's wife and her three sisters, taken each year from 1975 through 2011.  It's tempting to read into these photographs great meaning about how the sisters felt about each other in any given year, but I'm not sure that's completely valid.  Sometimes, you just pose for the camera, and whether you're standing at a slight remove means nothing more than that you're afraid you're coming down withe a cold, and don't want to pass it along to everyone else.  Perhaps there's some validity that comes with tracing the relationships over time?  I read a review of this show not long ago in the Post, and the reviewer came away with the idea that this reminds us of death.  The sisters are (obviously) aging in the photographs; eventually, there will only be three sisters - eventually, they will all be gone.  My thoughts were not so morbid.  I was impressed that the four women and the photographer came together every year for 36 years - good for them.  I can't but admire their perseverance.  Yes, eventually, they'll all be gone, but so will we all.  Dwell all you like on the inevitable; I prefer to concentrate on the work they've done, rather than the fact that they won't be able to do it forever.

An intriguing work is Ilse Bing's "Self Portrait" from 1988.  It includes a shattered mirror, in which you can see yourself.  What's the meaning of this, I wondered?  Am I supposed to see myself in her?  Is it meant to be a universal portrait?  I'm not sure I came away with any answers, but if art is supposed to make you think, mission accomplished.  Next up is Ann Hamilton's body object series.  I could not help but be reminded of the web site someone put up with pictures of random objects on a rabbit's head.  I seem to remember a stack of pancakes were among the things that the long-suffering pet bunny had to endure.

Nikki S. Lee's self portraits really stuck with me - another example of the thought-provoking.  She transforms herself into a member of a particular group (skateboarders, yuppies, lesbians, Hispanics, hip hop enthusiasts) and then documents her interactions with actual members of the group.  It made me wonder how she managed this, and if she ever let on to her companions that she really wasn't part of their group.  I can see that this is an interesting experiment, but I wonder about the human cost of the deception.  I wanted to know the full story, rather than just see the photos.

Gillian Wearing takes photographs of herself disguised as other people.  Perhaps the best known and most striking is "Me as Mapplethorpe."  The only way to tell that this isn't a portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe is the small gap between the mask and her face that you can see just below her eyes.  It's a "copy" of Mapplethorpe's final self-portrait, done in 1998.  I was reminded of the Hide/Seek exhibit at the Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago; there was a great photo of Mapplethorpe included - when he was young and well.

Finally, Tomoko Sawada's "ID-400" reminded me of the Asian-American portrait exhibit that I just saw at the Portrait Gallery.  Sawada created 400 different personas, then photographed herself in a photo booth.  Without reading the notes next to the picture, I would not have realized it's the same person.  An amazing amount of work to pull off - again, it's the dedication that stands out for me.

Verdict: Well worth seeing.  It's a big show, so allow plenty of time.  There's lots of different things here, so a little something for everyone.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Conestoga Wagon

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 2, 2013

Seems amazing to be reviewing things that will be closing in 2013, but there you are - time does march along, whether we wish it to or not. I've been going to the Smithsonian regularly since late 2009, so I've been at this a while now.

The wagon that is on display here was built in the 1840s or 1850s.  These wagons originated around 1750 in southeastern Pennsylvania, near the Conestoga River, hence the name.  Note that Conestoga Wagons did not carry people (that would be a prairie schooner - something I didn't realize when I started looking at it - that's part of the point - learning things), but freight only.  Their territory was between the coast and the inland, meaning West Virginia and Ohio.

Verdict: If you're at the museum anyway, take five minutes and have a look.

Celia Cruz Portrait by Robert Weingarten

Where: American History Museum

When: through October 30, 2012

Hooray!  Another photograph by Robert Weingarten.  This one is on display at the American History Museum, rather than with the show at the Ripley, but I was delighted with it all the same.  Even though I know nothing about Celia Cruz, I'm so taken with Weingarten's work that it really doesn't matter.

This photograph is very colorful, as you can see from the picture above; vivid is probably a better description than colorful.  Apparently, the choice of Celia Cruz was made by an online vote (how did I not know about this?).  She was among several choices, all people who were well-represented by objects in the museum's collection.  The difference between this picture and the ones at the Ripley is that Weingarten didn't have a chance to interview her, so the public answered the question, "What makes Celia Cruz important?"  A word cloud was generated by the answers and Weingarten worked from that.  Included in the display case were objects from the museum's collection that are featured in the picture.

I've always thought the Ripley was an awkward and unpleasant space for a show, but I now see its advantages.  The glare from the sun reflected off the display case and made it hard to see the photograph clearly - not a problem at the Ripley, with its subterranean location!

Verdict: I'm such a fan of Weingarten that I'm going to recommend anything that features his work.  It's only one photograph, so you can easily see it on your way to see something else in the museum.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Invention Case: Hot Spot of Invention

Where: American History Museum

When: through October 21, 2012

This is another exhibit in the West Wing of the museum that's about to go off display, as the museum completely renovates that side of the building.  This is a small display - similar in size to the Archives Center's offerings.  It tells the story of MIT and how it became a "hot spot" of invention in the 1930s.  A hot spot is: "a place that sparks and supports innovation by networks of creative people."  In 1930, Karl Taylor Compton became President of MIT, which started a scientific boom there.  The university developed strong ties to government and contributed directly to the WWII war effort.  Charles Stark Draper designed the gyroscope; Vannevar Bush improved radar and Harold Edgerton invented a strobe for night aerial reconnaissance photography.  The Radiation Law and Edgerton's lab are both still part of MIT, but the Draper Lab was spun off and is now an independent entity, due to anti-war protests in the 1960s.

Verdict: If you have an interest in scientific history, or are just wandering around the museum with a few minutes to spare, check this out.  Otherwise, you're not missing a blockbuster show if you don't see this.

Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475–1540

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: December 31, 2012

Augsburg is one of Germany's oldest cities, founded in 15 B.C. as a Roman military fortress, and named for the Emperor Augustus.  Its close proximity and many commercial ties to Italy led to an interest in classical art and its adaptations during the Italian Renaissance.  1475-1540 was Augsburg's cultural golden age and works from this time period are what is on display here.

Prints played an important role in the expression of religious devotion common in the late middle ages.  Many in Augusburg embraced Luther's ideas, and he visited the city in 1518.  Augsburg adopted a "middle way" - there was an official tolerance of both Catholics and Protestants, which allowed artists to create art for both groups.

"Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St. John," a print by Erhard Ratdott, on display here, is the earliest extant multifigured and multicolored print in the history of Western art.  It's always exciting to see something with an historical pedigree.  You can see the first time someone decided to try something new; I'm a bit surprised the gallery hasn't played this up more in its advertising.  Ratdott used vellum as his canvas, in an attempt to imitate the look of illuminated manuscripts, so a nod to the past, as well as a bold venture into the future.  Although this was done in 1491, the colors are still vibrant and beautiful.

Much of the art centers around women leading men to their downfall, a sadly common Biblical theme.  Works depicting people surprised by death also abound, which are not so misogynistic, but are a bit morbid.  Lots of art was created for Maximillian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was a patron of the city.  I was also reminded of the exhibit of Spanish armor I saw some time ago when I saw medals that had been created for Charles V.

Verdict: Not the most dazzling show, and not a large crowd.  It's a moderately sized exhibit, so manageable in a lunch hour.  Worth a look, especially if you are a fan of medieval art.