Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Song for the Horse Nation

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through January 7, 2013

This very large exhibit tells the story of the relationship between Native Americans and the horse.  It is one of the great stories of human contact with the animal world.  Without the horse, the history of the Native American people would be utterly different.  Native Americans see animals as fellow beings sharing a common destiny with humans, a different view than those of European descent have historically taken.

The horse originated in North America, then migrated elsewhere and died out in North America.  It returned to the continent with Columbus on his second voyage, in 1493.  In 1680, the Pueblo Indians staged a revolt against the Spanish in New Mexico, and 1500 horses passed into Native hands.  By the late 1700s, almost every tribe in North America was mounted.  Along with the spread of the horse, was the spread of firearms.  On display is a genuine Geronimo rifle.  I could not help but be reminded of the many hopeful people on "Antiques Roadshow" with their items they're just certain belonged to Geronimo or Sitting Bull.  I'm going to assume that the curators at the museum have authenticated this item.

One of the larger items on display is a Lakota tipi with horse decorations from the late 1800s.  The use of horse images shows how integral to their culture horses had become.  Horses transformed the lives of Native Americans in many ways, allowing them to travel longer distances and freeing women from many laborious tasks, thus giving them more time for creative pursuits.  Several famous people have been named for the horse, including former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Verdict: To see this in a lunch hour, you'll have to skim fairly quickly.  If you want to spend some serious time at this show, you'll need two hours easily.  Very informative and well laid out - worth the time, if you have it.


Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture

When: through January 13, 2013

Once again, I'm happy to have seen an offering from the Hirshhorn's "Black Box" series of videos.  Granted, they're odd, but in a good way.  I find myself thinking about these pieces after I've watched them, and not in the way I'm usually thinking about exhibits at the Hirshhorn.

Democracia is a Madrid-based artists' collective known for its socio-political work including performances, public engagement action, printed books and circulars and video installations.  This video, entitled "Ser y Durar" (which means To Exist and To Persist), is a collaboration between the collective and a group of Spanish traceurs.  What is a traceur, you ask?  Well, I didn't know either, until I saw this show.  A traceur is a person who plays the street sport parkour.  Still in the dark?  Me too - parkour is a sport in which people climb and jump over obstacles in order to reach a goal.  Apparently, this is a global sub-cultural phenomenon.  Just goes to show how uninformed I am about global sub-cultural phenomena - makes me wonder what else I'm missing...

The video consists of footage of several members of a traceur group (are they a team?  are they competing against one another?  I don't know.) as they race through a Spanish civil cemetery.  Civil cemeteries were reserved for those unable to be buried in Catholic cemeteries.  I'm not sure if the location has a significance, or if it just provides a good space for parkour. 

The five people jump over headstones, as pictured above, and the acrobatics is amazing to watch.  Especially when you consider that the surfaces in a cemetery are distinctly unforgiving, it's quite an impressive display.  Everyone emerges unscathed, and the end of the film sees the group happily walking down the street.  Outside the room where the video is playing are hanging red hoodies, either the ones used in the video or ones exactly like them.  I noted that they were alarmed, which, so far as I know, nothing else in the Hirshhorn is.  There's some great commentary to be made about what is valuable in our society, I'm sure.

Verdict: This is an interesting video, in keeping with the Black Box tradition.  Worth a look for the athleticism of the performers, even if you're not a fan of parkour.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sustaining/Creating: A National Juried Exhibition for Emerging Artists with Disabilities, Ages 16-25

Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 13, 2013

This is the 11th exhibition of the winners in this contest for young artists with disabilities; I've seen it twice before.  It's very interesting to see artists in the beginning of their careers - you can appreciate what you're seeing now, and keep an eye out for them to see what they'll create in the future.  I guess you could compare it to buying a baseball player's rookie card.

The theme of this year's exhibit is sustainability and contemporary creativity.  The artists were asked to bring innovative viewpoints to these subjects.  I confess, if I'd been asked to create a work of art with this as my theme, I would have been stumped.  Luckily for we museum goers, these young people have risen to the occasion.  One of the pieces that caught my eye was Copper 2 by Jacob Brown (he's 20 and suffers from spastic cerebral palsy).  It's an abstract (bet you didn't see that coming - me, liking an abstract!) that features great greens and blues with copper accents.  Another of my favorites was Restoring the Sublime by Leland Foster (he's 21 and has Crohn's Disease).  It's a painting of a boy painting a forest scene over a concrete wall.  There's something Norman Rockwell-esque about it, which one doesn't expect from a young artist.

Verdict: Don't miss this small show - it's in the corridor leading to the International Gallery.  Very manageable in a lunch hour and a great way to see what young artists are doing.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Beautiful Time: Photography by Sammy Baloji

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through January 6, 2013

Sometimes I wonder why exhibits end up in one museum rather than another.  This show, of photographs by the Congolese artist Sammy Baloji, could have been shown in the African Art Museum, but instead are here in Natural History.  Perhaps it's because the subject is the mines in the Congo?  I'm not sure, but I'd love to know more about how venues are chosen.

In the 1950s, there was a successful copper mining industry, which brought prosperity to what is now the Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  In 1960, the country gained its independence from their colonial rulers, but corrupt governments and mismanagement have led the industry to ruin and the local people's fortunes have fallen with the industry's.

Baloji takes old photographs of Congolese workers and the colonial managers, and superimposes them on current photographs of the area.  The juxtaposition of former wealth and prosperity with current desolation is both a very clever artistic technique and a quite sad commentary on current events.  Kudos to Baloji for his talent, and sympathy to the poor people, who now have very little in the way of industry.

Verdict: An unexpected show at Natural History and well worth a look - it's small and easily managed in a lunch hour.

Titanoboa: Monster Snake

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through January 6, 2013

I took the morning off on Thursday, and saw several different exhibits.  The number of shows closing in January is quite large (I've noticed over the years that this is often the case), and since I'm taking a fitness class three days a week, that eats into my time for seeing shows.  Add in the holidays, with their inevitable gatherings, and I was fearful I might miss something!  Now, I've got a manageable number left to see, so unless the Smithsonian adds a lot of shows between now and the end of the year, I should be able to bring you news of everything with no problem.

My first stop was the Natural History Museum to see Titanoboa, or a model of him/her, anyway.  The story of how the fossils of this enormous snake were found is quite interesting, but I'll let you read about it at the exhibit, or watch it on the Smithsonian Channel (available on YouTube).  The Reader's Digest Condensed Version of the story is that scientists were excavating in Colombia and found what they thought were crocodile vertebrae.  They sent them to Florida, where other scientists were examining them, and it was discovered that some of the bones were actually from the largest known snake in world history.  Modern snakes are nothing in comparison; this thing was longer than a school bus and weighed more than ten heavyweight wrestlers.

The curators have set up the show very nicely - in the front, there's lots of information about the dig, and the discovery; it's not until you get to the very back that you see the model they've constructed of the snake itself.  Big is not the word.  I was reminded of the basilisk from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  I'm not afraid of snakes and have nothing against them, but I really would not want to encounter a live version of this monster!

Verdict: Don't miss this opportunity to learn about the creatures of the rain forest in the Paleocene Era, witness the cooperation among scientists to come to conclusions about their findings and see a model of the biggest snake ever.

Abstract Drawings

Where: American Art Museum

When: through January 6, 2013

This is a small show, featuring 46 works on paper from the Smithsonian's collection of abstract drawings.  I'm reminded once again just how enormous the Smithsonian's art collection is, that they can put on entire shows without borrowing from other museums.  Artists began experimenting with abstraction in the early 20th century.  Some drawings were preparations for works in other media, but most were created as independent works of art.

One thing I noticed almost immediately is how many of the works are "Untitled."  I'm sure I've commented on this phenomenon before, but really?  Untitled?  I take the time out of my day to see this show, putting aside my lack of interest in pen and ink drawings and my skepticism about abstract art, and you can't even bother to give your work a name?  I'm sure there's some great philosophical reason for this, but it just seems sloppy to me.  Finish the job, already!!

One of the first pieces I saw was by Man Ray.  There was a big show of his works a while before I started going to shows on my lunch hour, and I've always been rather sorry I missed it.  Now, however, I can put that regret to bed.  His offering, you guessed it, "Untitled," from 1947 is merely a bunch of squiggles.  If this is indicative of his work (and, to be honest, I don't know, since I missed the show), I will lose no more sleep over having failed to attend his exhibition.

Just so you don't think I'm dead set against all abstract works or all works that are untitled, I did like John Ferren's "Untitled" from 1934.  No discernible figures or bits of landscape, so truly abstract, but I loved the color, so I'm giving it a thumbs up.

Another artist, Will Henry Stevens, was inspired by the works of Chinese Song Dynasty painters, which he first saw on a trip to the Freer Gallery in 1912.  I love to hear stories about people being moved by museums to try new things, or  embark on a life's work.  I feel a kinship with others who go to exhibits and are changed for the better for having gone.

Verdict: If you like abstract art, don't miss this show, which is easily managed in a lunch hour.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Art Institute of Chicago

Last week, I took a trip to Chicago for a business meeting.  I arranged to arrive several hours early, in order to visit The Art Institute of Chicago.  Located in the downtown area of the city, only a few blocks from my hotel, it's an amazing museum, and if you are ever in Chicago, I can't advise you strongly enough to pay a visit.

I had been hoping to take a guided tour of the museum, since I hadn't visited before, but they don't seem to offer those (Are docents now being replaced by technology?  Is there an app for that?), so I contented myself with an audio tour.  Uncertain where to begin, I decided that since I like French Impressionism, I would head in that direction.  Their collection is fantastic; if you like this type of art - do not miss this.  The most notable work is Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte."  It's enormous and so dominates its room.  The audio guide included commentary on this piece, of course, and I was interested to learn about it from the curators at the museum.

After the Impressionists, I wandered into a collection of European Decorative Arts.  Here I saw the highlight of my trip - a photograph cabinet designed by Josef Hoffmann.  It is an Arts and Crafts style piece of furniture - very square legs, with a gorgeous Art Nouveau design on the three drawers.  Simply lovely; if Stickley would make a reproduction, I'd buy it in a minute.

After my time with the Europeans, I moved downstairs and saw artworks from India, Korea, China and Japan, including a piece by Hokusai - I was reminded of my Japan Spring, and smiled to see another piece by this artist of whom I've grown quite fond.   After that, I walked through displays of African and Native American art.

I spent 2.5 hours, but could easily have spent 2.5 days.  It was one of my favorite parts of my trip, and I'm hoping to get back to the city, so I can visit again.