Saturday, June 29, 2013

Portraiture Now: Drawing on the Edge

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through August 18, 2013

Yet another show of contemporary art in the former Patent Office building - this time at the National Portrait Gallery.  Unlike the skepticism with which I viewed the Nam June Paik offering, I was really intrigued and impressed with the artists displayed in this show of new portraiture.

As the large banner at the front of the show tells you, in the past 20 years, artists have moved beyond traditional portraiture, and are drawing with a new enthusaism and ambition.  The artists featured in this show are working at the intersection of drawing and photography, painting, video, textual writing and computer technology.  The thing that hasn't changed in the transition to "new" drawing is the commitment to make direct, immediate, highly personal marks on paper.  There's something about portraiture that's very intimate; I always feel as if I'm getting a glimpse into the life of the subject, and the relationship between the artist and the person posing for the work.  I suppose this is a bit voyeuristic, but I hope harmlessly so.  I'm confining my "peeping Tom" activities to publicly displayed artwork!

There are six artists featured in this display, which is easily managed in a lunch hour.  All of them are worth a look; I was particularly taken with four of them.

Rob Matthews' portrait of his wife Tracy shows her holding a skull she crocheted.  This work is in the hallway outside the room where most of his work is displayed, so I hadn't had a chance to read the description of his technique.  I confess I found myself more intrigued with Tracy than I was with the artist (who crochets skulls?!?), but once I had a chance to look at his other work, I became interested in him as well.  Matthews asks his subjects to hold an object that is meaningful to them and to think of nothing while he draws.  I couldn't help but think this makes it rather hard on the sitter.  To have to hold something, even something small, for a long time would get tiresome, and I've never yet been able to think of nothing.

Mary Borgman, on the other hand, asks the subjects of her monumental charcoal drawings to think of something important to them; I think I'd be more successful following that instruction.  Her works are towering, but they don't feel threatening.  They're more commanding than confrontational.

Adam Chapman constructs digital portraits; the computerized elements of the drawing move in a frame, gradually coming together to form a portrait, then moving apart again.  I'll admit, it's a bit frustrating to watch this process, as it seems to take forever for the elements to come together, and they break apart almost immediately.

Ben Durham makes his drawings out of text; he writes down everything he knows about the subject of his work.  He gets his subjects from the police blotter in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky.  He draws the mug shots taken of friends or childhood classmates (he must have gone to a pretty rough school).  The words, when observed from a distance, form a picture of the subject.  Even when you get quite close, it's hard to read the words. 

Verdict:  If you think portraiture is still only oil paintings of aristocrats wearing ermine and holding globes to show their position in society, you really need to have a look at this show.  Very interesting work; it reminds you of the incredible creativity of the human mind.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Nam June Paik: Global Visionary

Where: American Art Museum

When: through August 11, 2013

Usually the shows I see at the American Art Museum are of traditional art works, but this Nam June Paik show is worthy of the Hirshhorn.  I can't say I was surprised by the exhibit; I was expecting some pretty crazy stuff, and that's what I got.  I'd seen a few of Nam June Paik's pieces before, in a National Gallery show, in their East Building Tower space, and only the weird make it to the Tower.  I think this show caused me to roll my eyeballs a bit more than the earlier display, just because there was so much more of it.

Paik's work centers around television sets.  Sometimes the work is a video displayed on a television, and sometimes the sets themselves are the art.  An example of the latter is the work entitled "TV Garden," which features numerous televisions displayed amongst plants.  According to the blurb accompanying the piece, this work is meant to represent TV's creative growth and utopian future.  Paik predicted that eventually the TV Guide would be as thick as the Manhattan phone book, and I suppose if you listed every show on every cable channel and all of the programs shown on the web, that's probably right.  Paik was the person credited with the first use of the term "information superhighway," in the 1970s.

The Nam June Paik archive is housed here at the American Art Museum, and this is the first of several exhibitions to be drawn from the archive.  If you're a fan of his work, this is great news.  If, like me, you're skeptical, you may be in for more crazy TV art than you'd like.  Some of the items from his archive are on display, and I have to say, if he weren't a famous artist, he would be called a hoarder.  Some photographs are also included in the show; my personal favorite was "Violin to be Dragged in the Street," which is a photo of Paik dragging a violin in the street.  Nothing like a title that gives you a good sense of the picture.

There are several videos playing, so you'll want to make time for those or make several trips, if you're a fan.  They run for a few hours, continuously, so to see everything, you'd need quite a bit of time.

Verdict: A little of him goes a long way, in my opinion.  If you like his stuff, it's a feast.  If not, you can get the idea with a quick skim of the show.

In the Library: The European Grand Tour

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through August 30, 2013

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know how much I enjoy going to see the small shows in the National Gallery's library.  Located on the main floor of the East Building, it houses a few display cases that are open to public examination.  The exhibits change from time to time, and feature items from the library's collection.  When the East Building closes, I'm assuming the library will close as well, and that's a pity.  Granted, the exhibits are nothing like as showy or spectacular as the art shows can be, but the library is a little oasis of quiet, even when a big show is on in the building's main exhibit spaces.

The current offering is a display of objects related to the "European Grand Tour."  This was a journey made by well-heeled young Northern Europeans (particularly the English) and was designed to complete their education in languages and manners.  The phrase "grand tour" was first used in 1670, and 20-somethings from wealthy families made these trips throughout the 1700s and 1800s.  By the mid-nineteenth century, even the middle classes were sending their young people to see the origins of classical literature.

The trip generally began in Paris and continued through Italy, although over the course of time, destinations beyond Italy were included as well.  I could not help but be reminded of Lucy Honeychurch and her trip to Florence, as I looked at the guidebooks and diaries on display.  I was also reminded of the exhibit of view paintings I'd seen in 2011; people on a grand tour would compile view books, a similar kind of memento of their trip.

Verdict: Make a few minutes to see this little display; I'm not sure that there will be another library exhibit before the East building closes for renovation.

A World of Bonds: Frederick Sommer’s Photography and Friendships

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through August 4, 2013

I'd always thought that truth was beauty and beauty was truth, until I saw this show.  The theme of the exhibit is the influence of Frederick Sommer and his friends on each others' art, but the message with which I walked away was: photographs of decaying coyotes may be pictures of truth, but I fail to see the beauty.

Sommer's photographs are often surreal and macabre, and are meant to be disorienting.  To those who balk at using dead chickens in the service of art, Sommer's attitude was that if you are disturbed by depictions of death, you should examine your own fear of death.  I don't know that I was disturbed exactly, but the dead chicken head picture and the photo of the decaying coyotes certainly didn't pass the "would I hang it in my living room?" test.

So does this mean I'm plagued by a fear of death?  No more than any one else, I don't think.  I found his photography self-indulgent.  It seems to say to the viewer, "Look how clever I am!  Look how I can use disgusting objects for my art!  If you don't like it, then you're not as sophisticated as I am!"  It reminds me of teenagers writing poetry about how misunderstood they are.  Terribly important to the author; of little interest to anyone else.

Verdict: This is a one-room show you can easily skip.  Also featured in the display are works by Max Ernst, Man Ray and others, all much of a piece.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hand-held: Gerhard Pulverer's Japanese Illustrated Books

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through August 11, 2013

Although the items in this exhibit are from the 1600s through the 1800s, it is actually a show about new technology.  In much the same way that the e-reader and the tablet and the smartphone are changing the way people read at the beginning of the 21st century, the hand-held book changed the way people read in the 1600s.  Just as we are looking for something more portable than a 500-page book and are finding it in the Kindle, the Japanese of 400+ years ago were looking for something easier to carry around than a scroll.

Unlike the rise of modern technology, which has widened a gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the hand-held book allowed more common people to read.  No longer did you have to be able to afford the scrolls produced painstakingly by hand; you could purchase a book made with wood blocks that were capable of being reproduced many times over.  The cost decreased and the distribution increased.  The closest experience in the West was the advancement of the printing press.

Aside from the historical importance of these items, there is the artistry to be enjoyed as well.  Beautiful drawings and lovely calligraphy abound, whether it's landscapes, animals, courtesans or humorous caricatures of everyday life.  There are even a few examples of erotic books, which are in a niche with plenty of warning about the potential unsuitability of the images.  Frankly,  I didn't find them terribly pornographic, but best to be on the safe side, I suppose.

Perhaps my favorite piece in the show is entitled "Women Airing Books and Clothes" by Katsukawa Shurisho.  Apparently, every autumn, the women of the household would air out the books, to prevent the dampness of summer from damaging them.  The scene depicts several women involved in this task, with one lying on the floor, engrossed in a book she has discovered in the course of her work.  I can sympathize, having been distracted from chores any number of times by reading.

My old favorite, Hokusai, is featured here as well.  He published a work he called "Manga," which translates to "Random Sketches".  They are drawings of any number of subjects, most of them comedic looks at ordinary people.  I prefer his paintings, and his Mount Fuji series, but even his little drawings are quite good.

Another piece that caught my eye was a small bookcase, made to fit perfectly a set of books.  It reminded me of a slipcover or a box for a set, although this was on a larger scale.  I imagine it helped to keep out the damp and the insects.

Verdict: If you like Asian art, or are interested in the history of books, this is a wonderful exhibit.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Two small Japanese art exhibits at the Freer

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through August 4, 2013

There are two one-room shows on now at the Freer, part of their "Arts of Japan" series.  One, from which the picture at left is drawn, is entitled "Poetic License: Making Old Words New."  Included in this room are works that interpret Japanese literature; they are a new way of "seeing" the stories.

I was particularly struck by the beauty of the calligraphy in the work, "Landscape with Calligraphy," which was most likely a work dashed off quickly by an artist meeting with his friends, gathering communally to discuss the arts, in imitation of the Chinese gentlemen scholars, whose lives sound so civilized. A document box caught my eye as well - if only I had something as lovely in which to store my papers, I'm sure I would file them immediately!  A special treat for me was to see the "Immortals of Poetry" by Hokusai.  I saw so much of his work last year, that I think of him as an old friend now and am delighted when I see anything by him.

The second show is called "Edo Aviary," and is a collection of paintings featuring birds.  Birds played a very important role in East Asian iconography; they were symbols of the society's virtues and were given anthropomorphic qualities by those observing them.  When Japan became more open to Western scientific perspectives, representations of birds became more orinthologically correct, but retained their power as symbols.

When you see a painting of birds in combination with plants or trees, know that this is really a rebus puzzle.  Each element in the painting has a meaning, and when put together, they make a message for the recipient.

I liked "Rooster, Hen & Chicks" and "Eagle" by Kishi Gahku, which offer rather jaded views of these feathered icons held in such high esteem by Edo society.  The hen is feeding a dragonfly to one of her chicks - not such a happy turn of events for the insect!

Verdict: When have I not recommended a show at the Freer?  These two can easily be seen in one trip and make a lovely break from whatever cares the day presents.  If you're lucky enough to walk over on a beautiful day, that's a lot of stress relief in one trip!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Edvard Munch: A 150th Anniversary Tribute

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through July 28, 2013

I had very high expectations going in to this exhibit.  I was anticipating a large, multi-room show and the opportunity to see "The Scream," that oft-stolen, iconic picture that says so much about the human condition and sells so many magnets, tote bags, mugs, etc.

Imagine my surprise to find that this is a one-room affair, and that "The Scream" is a lithograph, not one of the paintings.  I did some research after I returned from the show and found that there are really four painted versions of "The Scream," two of which have been stolen.  In addition, there are lithographs that were made from the original wood print, not a lot of them, but more than four.  The lithograph is quite small and not terribly colorful, but does have that haunting quality that no amount of commercialization can quite remove from the work.  I did find myself thinking, "This is it?  This little drawing is it?"  Hence the reason I did the research.

"This is it?" would describe my reaction to the whole show - I liked what I saw, but there's just not much to see.  Probably the best part of the show is a series of paintings called "Two Women on a Shore."  The series allows you to see the different ways in which Munch colored this image - some were darker and some were lighter, although I wouldn't call any of them light, in the sense of being carefree.  One women stands on a beach, with another woman behind her.  In later versions, the standing woman's hair gets redder and redder (the color of blood?), while the other woman becomes more and more skeletal.  Even in the earlier versions, I thought the other woman was meant to represent death, and she doesn't get cheerier as the versions progress.

Other works that I liked included "Puberty," which is a teenage girl covering herself with her arms, her face a picture of bewilderment - you can practically feel her fear and shame coming through the paper.  A mysterious figure seems to emerge from her side - like a dark spirit.  "Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm" made me think that Munch was concerned with his own demise and eventual loss of ability - there's not much art work you can produce with a skeleton arm.

"Vampire" is a work I'd seen at the National Gallery's last Munch show several years ago.  It's an interesting play on the usual vampire story (young girl ravaged by male vampire, out to suck her blood), as the victim is a man and the vampire is a woman - who is sporting red hair, no surprise there.

Verdict: If you go in expecting a small exhibit, and realize that you'll be seeing a lithograph of "The Scream" and not one of the paintings, you'll find this worthwhile.  I think my disappointment was the result of thinking I was going to see a different kind of show.