Sunday, July 28, 2013

Life in the Ancient Seas

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through October 21, 2013

Yet another of the museum's older exhibits is closing, presumably to allow for a refurbished exhibit, although perhaps it's to make room for the new dinosaur hall that's coming in the future.  Whatever the reason, an update to this show is due and would be quite welcome.  It's an interesting display and chock full of information, but compared to some of the museum's newer offerings, it can't help but be overlooked.

This show is concerned with life in the ancient seas, those organisms that lived and died millions of years ago.  It puts our own life spans in perspective certainly, as well as human existence generally.  Humans in our present form have been around for about 200,000 years.  A good long time, you might reasonably think.  The first known creatures in the sea lived up to 540 million years ago.  Now that's a long time.

In addition, ocean life has come and gone over the years; one era comes to a halt and almost all of the species are wiped out.  Then a new era begins with mostly new creatures.  When people talk about "the end of the world," they're really talking about the end of human life on earth.  The earth will keep on spinning and new life forms will eventually appear, even if humans aren't here to see it.

The hall is arranged chronologically, which I must admit is my favorite form of arrangement.  First, we begin with the Paleozoic Era, which lasted from 540 million to 230 million years ago.  Trilobites flourished, then crashed and burned.  They were followed by the machiopods and crinoids and the first reefs were formed.  Reefs are really sea cities, they were built on the remains of earlier habitations and then spread out as they became too crowded.  230 million years ago, there was the greatest extinction in the history of life on this planet.  The display wasn't clear on what caused this cessation of existence, I gather that scientists aren't sure what happened.

Then the Mesozoic Era (230 million to 65 million years ago) followed, with the first appearance of fish, mollusks, reptiles and birds.  More extinction, then the Cenozoic Era (65 million years ago to the present).  In my view, perhaps the greatest contribution of the Cenozoic Era is the arrival of the scallop to the seas, but many other recognizable bivalves and gastropods appeared as well.  The display includes some lovely shells; I'm sure this is a mere scintilla of the museum's total collection.

Verdict: Worth a look if you're in the museum.  Lots of information, presented in a way that's intelligible to the lay person, one of the hallmarks of Natural History.  Also, if you're a museum nerd like I am, it's interesting to compare this exhibit, opened in 1990, with the Sant Ocean Hall, from 2008. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Seattle sojourn

For the past week or so, I've been in Seattle attending a conference and seeing family (hence the reason for the lack of blogging last weekend).  While I was there, I had the opportunity to visit two Seattle museums, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and the Experience Music Project (EMP).

One of the things I noticed immediately is that art museums in Seattle are not open as much as the Smithsonian; one does get spoiled living in the DC area.  My only day to visit the SAM was on Sunday, and I fit in a trip around some conference activities.  The collection is heavy on modern art; in fact, they are the location for the part of the Vogel collection that was sent to Washington state.  In case you don't know about the Vogels, there were a husband and wife who lived in New York and collected modern art.  They had so many pieces, that when they donated their collection to the National Gallery in Washington, there wasn't room to house everything.  So each state got 50 pieces; the project is called "50 Pieces for 50 States."  What a great life list to compile - seeing Vogel collections everywhere you go...

The best thing I saw at SAM was a piece by Yinka Shonibare.  He's a Nigerian artist who, in my opinion, is a genius.  I saw a very large show of his art several years ago at the Smithsonian African Art Museum.  This was before I started blogging, so don't bother looking for my review.  Suffice it to say, it's the best thing I've seen in the four years I've been going to museums; I liked it so much, I went back and saw it again.

His art is difficult to describe, but I'll give it a try.  He takes headless mannequins and clothes them in Victorian clothing made out of batik fabric with wild designs.  These are arranged in tableaux - sometimes it's only one mannequin, other works include several.  The piece on display at SAM was of a Victorian family out for a promenade, and featured a father, mother, son and daughter.  His works challenge societal notions of identity; because the mannequins are headless, you can't tell what race they are supposed to be.  Also, although the style of the clothing is Western; the fabric is traditionally associated with Africa.  SAM also had a video of his which I enjoyed as well.  I felt I'd gotten my money's worth just with those two items, but the museum has much more on offer and is well worth a trip if you are ever in the Seattle area.

The EMP is at the Seattle Center, not far from downtown.  You can get there using the Monorail, which is great fun.  I'd been once before and spent most of a day going through the entire museum.  This time I was there for a reception associated with my conference, so admission was free.  Don't worry if you have to pay to get in, if you like music and its history, it's absolutely worth it.  They're showing two special exhibits at the moment: Women of Rock and Roll (which was here in DC before going to Seattle) and Jimi Hendrix in London.  Both are quite interesting and feature artifacts, as well as information.  Probably the best part of the permanent collection is the Guitar Gallery, which shows guitars from their beginnings to the present.  There are also booths in which you can mix recordings and play instruments; I guess that's the "Experience" part.  An excellent way to spend a day.

Verdict: Seattle: it's not just for coffee anymore!  There's lots for the museum goer to see and do in the Pacific Northwest.

Orientalism: A Selection of Prints and Drawings

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through September 23, 2013

I would have had a hard time finding this exhibit, but I remembered there's a little room at the back of the "Small French Paintings," and sure enough, there is was.  Good to know where you're headed, as the docents didn't know, the last time I saw a show in this tucked-away space.

Orientalism was a 19th century phenomenon.  As contact with North Africa increased, romantic artists exaggerated the exotic character of the people and the animals in this part of the world.  You'll see fearsome warriors in elaborate costumes, as well as Royal Tiger by Delacroix, pictured above.  I very much liked this picture; although he's lying in repose, there's an intensity about this animal, as if he could strike at any moment.

I'm certain that a backlash against this movement was part of a show I saw at the Museum of African Art, the one featuring the art of Lalla Essaydi.  It was very interesting to see examples of the works she railed against - it puts that part of her work in context.  I think I could appreciate it more, having seen this little show.

Verdict: Well worth a few minutes of your time, if you're at the National Gallery anyway. 

Over, Under, Next: Experiments in Mixed Media, 1913 to the Present

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through September 8, 2013

Another trip to the Hirshhorn; another trip through the looking glass.  This is one of their Bataan Death March exhibits - it takes up the entire 2nd floor, and there's just a few works in each room.  It can function as your cardio workout for the day!

The theme of this show, as you will have guessed from the title, is mixed media - think of collages.  Picasso and Georges Braques started this movement in 1912 with their use of everyday objects in their artworks; now everyone's doing it.  I guess that's one measure of success: when your avant-garde idea goes mainstream.

Some pieces that sparked my interest:

  • Jean Dubuffet's Landscape with Three Trees, mostly because there's nothing bizarre about it
  • Michelangelo Pistoletto's Venus of the Rags, a female nude statue facing a big pile of clothing
  • Ann Hamilton & Kathryn Clark's Palimpsest, which is a little room covered in pieces of paper, with a cabinet in the back containing snails eating a cabbage - it's meant to represent the brain's deterioration - how can you not like that?
I learned that Alexander Calder invented the mobile - I knew he was a master of the medium, but had no idea he invented it.  Just think of the many nurseries containing modern art...

Verdict: Well, it's the Hirshhorn, so you know what I think; it's worth the walk for the cabbage-eating snails, if you're in the mood for a trek and some ridiculous art.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through September 2, 2013

This is truly an overwhelming show.  It's enormous - room after room of sets, costumes, videos, photographs, posters - you name it.  By the end, you feel immersed in the ballet, not only the dance itself, but the art that accompanied it at the Ballets Russes.  The show is arranged chronologically, so the first floor is concerned with the founding of the company and the fantastic career of Nijinsky, its first great star performer.  Sadly, no video of any of his performances now exist, but contemporary descriptions mention his tremendous athleticism and his androgynous sexuality.  Note that although he was Diaghilev's lover, he married a ballerina - how's that for androgyny?

Diaghilev, the mastermind behind the company, was not a dancer, an artist or a musician.  What he had was the vision to bring together great dancers, artists and musicians to create tremendous ballets over the course of twenty years.  Interestingly enough, he moved from opera to the ballet as a result of financial pressures when Tsar Nicholas II withdrew his monetary support.  Amazing how much great art has been created as a result of money, or the lack of it.

The upper floor is devoted to the shows of the later period, with each ballet getting its own room - you are surrounded by the artwork, so you feel as if you are part of the show.  Two huge tapestries (I think I read that they had to raise a ceiling in order to accommodate them) are featured, one a backdrop and the other a curtain.  Their size and the fact that they are still in good shape (as is almost everything on display, amazingly enough) warrants a trip all on their own.

The videos on display are, for the most part, modern performances of the company's works.  Diaghilev refused to allow any filming of his company; the only video clip of the troupe was a clandestine film of a rehearsal - so bootlegging is not a modern-day invention!

Diaghilev's influence lives on through the lives of the performers with whom he worked, and those whom they taught.  As Stravinsky said of him, "his passionate devotion to the cause he served...won the hearts of his co-workers."

Verdict: Do not miss this show - make plenty of time, as you'll want to linger in the many rooms, and watch the videos.

Whistler's Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through September 8, 2013

This small exhibit is on the lower lever of the Freer, so walk down the staircase to the left of the Mall entrance, rather than entering the museum proper, to find it.

Whistler lived in Chelsea from 1863 - 1903, and, beginning in the 1880s, he made sketches of the daily activities of his neighbors out and about in the street and at the shops.  These were personal observations, not meant as social commentary, although they did feature the poorer elements of society.  The "change" in the title refers to the Chelsea Embankment project, which not only cleaned up the river (thereby eliminating the terrible stench), but also forced the poor away from the waterfront, to make way for the mansions of the upper classes.  The way of life Whistler's work portrays was vanishing.

The sketches are mostly pen and ink, which is not my favorite style, although a few do have bits of color, like the painting above.  Not the usual sort of fare one sees at the Freer, and without much vibrancy, not a show I especially liked.

Verdict: Worth a look if you're in the neighborhood, otherwise, not a must-see.

Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing's Phoenix Project

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through September 2, 2013

I think this is the first time I've been to see an exhibit about an exhibit, and the experience was unsatisfying.

Xu Bing has constructed a massive sculpture of two birds currently on display at MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art).  The sculpture is composed entirely of construction debris from various worksites around Beijing.  This show is about the process of making the sculpture, from idea to shipment, but you don't get to see the finished project yourself, except in pictures and in the video that accompanies the display. 

The artwork was originally going to be on permanent display in Beijing, but the downturn in the economy caused the commission to be cancelled.  Undaunted, Xu Bing created his work and shipped it to MASS MoCA, so China's loss was western Massachusetts' gain.  In the words of the artist, "Phoenixes are an embodiment of the labor that lies behind today's prosperity."  One could also look at the phoenixes as symbolic of the reuse of trash - they rise from the literal ashes of construction.

Verdict:  This is the first time the Sackler has devoted a show to the creative process behind a work of art, so that's somewhat interesting, but without being about to see the finished product, it seems more academic than impressive.

A Will of Their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 2, 2013

At the time of the American Revolution, the anniversary of which we celebrated this week here in the US, "women did not share the same status or rights as men."  The quote is from the notes accompanying this small exhibit, and it certainly doesn't overstate the case.  Despite lacking basic human rights that we take for granted in this country today, some women still managed to make something of their lives and influence public policy.

The Revolution provided women the opportunity to work outside their homes and voice opinions in public.  I was reminded of the opportunities afforded the many "Rosie the Riveters" during the Second World War; it seems there's nothing like a shortage of men to allow women to show their talents in the workplace.

One of the women featured in this display is Anne Catharine Hoof Green.  An eighteenth-century Katharine Graham, she worked with her husband to publish the Maryland Gazette, a Maryland newspaper.  After his death, she took over as editor.  She was appointed the official printer of documents for the Colony of Maryland.

Judith Sargent Murray was one of the earliest advocates of women's rights.  She wanted to share in the education provided to her brother, but denied to her due to her gender.  She was the first woman to self-publish a book.

Patience Wright was the first native-born American sculptor of either sex.  I liked her comment, "Women are always useful in grand events."  She proved herself very useful during the Revolution, as she became an American spy.

Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American to publish a book and the first American woman to earn a living from her writing.  She was enslaved, but her writing, which was praised by Washington, Franklin and Voltaire, helped her to gain her freedom.

Of course, no exhibit on American women of achievement in the colonial period would be complete without Abigail Adams.  I won't bother to talk about her, as I'm sure everyone knows her story backwards and forwards, but I will say I like the portrait of her in the National Gallery of Art better than the one on display here.

Verdict: Take a few minutes to look at this display when you're in the building to see a larger show; you can manage it in ten minutes easily.