Saturday, August 31, 2013

Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa

Where: African Art Museum

When: through January 5, 2014

As I write this, it's not even September, but I'm already seeing exhibits that will close in 2014.  Partly that's because my schedule has allowed me to see several exhibits per week lately, and partly it's because there don't seem to be as many shows on display that are closing this fall.  There are a TON of shows closing in January, however, so it's not as if I lack for things to see.

I haven't been to the African Art Museum in a while - they don't seem to have as many temporary exhibits as the Sackler (which is almost identical in size).  I'm not sure why that is, but I wish they offered a few more things I could add to my list to visit.  I find I like contemporary African art very much and would enjoy seeing more of it.

This display, which is fairly large, is comprised of works that consider the role of the land in African society.  In some pieces this is the actual earth itself, in others it's representations of land, maps for example.  In yet others, it's what is contained below the surface of life, buried in the earth.  The show focuses on works from 1800 - present.

The first work I noticed was a painting, imagine my surprise.  I've noticed that a lot of African art is composed of sculpture, masks, bead work, but you don't often see a lot of painting.  This one is a still life called Hottentots Holland:  Flora Capensis 2 by Andrew Putter.  It reminded me of many still life paintings I've seen over the years in the National Gallery.  At first, it's a lovely arrangement of flowers, but the more I looked, the more I saw other images in the floral designs.  An interesting piece, and one I was sorry to leave behind.

One thing I noticed about the display is how young many of the artists are; lots of them were born in the 1960s or later.  Nice to know that, despite the continent's problems, people are still making art and sharing it with the rest of the world.

Another set of paintings that I liked was Christine Dixie's Even in the Long Descent I-V.  This deals with the Cape Frontier Wars, which lasted from 1779-1879.  The five works show a family buried in the earth, complete with their dog.  The idea, as I interpreted it, is that the life we live today, on the surface of the land, is built on the lives of others, who are now hidden below us.  It behooves us not to forget these people, and the circumstances of their lives.  Dogs, I found out, are often used as symbols of the underground, as they dig in the earth - something I didn't know before.

Less traditional pieces are represented as well, including a piece by Batoul S'himi.  It's a pressure cooker, with a map of the world carved into it.  It symbolizes the under-representation of women in world politics and the pressure that exists to change this.  One of the last pieces I saw was one by Younes Rahmoun entitled Kemmoussa.  It's a series of plastic bags, tied into tiny knots and strung together.  I couldn't help but be reminded of the plastic bags I take with me every day when I walk my dogs - these bags have a better fate than the ones I'm using!!

Verdict:  Well worth a look if you're at all interested in African art, or in the relationship between people and the land.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through December 8, 2013

This is the last Tower exhibit I'll see for a long time, and, much as I dislike Tower shows generally, this one was worth the climb!

Kerry James Marshall is a contemporary artist whose work in this show focuses on the "middle passage," the portion of the slave trade that involved bringing Africans to America.  So many people torn from their families and forced to live in terrible conditions, and so many others who died along the way.  Truly, a horrible period in our nation's history and in the histories of the other countries that were involved.

Two of the works highlight the role that slaves played in life at Mount Vernon and Monticello; I was reminded of the Jefferson show at the American History museum.  I still am astounded that someone who could write so eloquently about human liberty could enslave so many humans himself.

All of the work is allegorical; you can look at the paintings for quite some time and still not pick out every symbol in them.  Water and journeys are often featured, along with a red cross (a symbol from African culture).  This is a show that I would love to see with a docent, so that I could pick up on more of the meaning of the pieces.

In the second room, there are numerous studies for the pieces you see in the first room, which is interesting.  In some cases, the paintings started out quite differently, and he eliminated or added several different elements before deciding on a final form.

Verdict: You'll get more than a cardio workout going to this Tower show - well worth a trip.

Ellsworth Kelly Colored Paper Images

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through December 1, 2013

As the days wind down for the East Building (which is due to close for renovations for THREE years at the end of 2013), I'm seeing all the temporary exhibits there with a touch of sadness.  It will be a long time before I'm off to see a show there again, although I gather the library will remain open throughout the construction, so I can still see their little exhibits.  Still, no big shows after the Diaghilev closes until 2016, which seems a very long way away.

This week I saw two small shows there, the first of which was this exhibit of colored images on paper by Ellsworth Kelly.  The introduction outside promised that these works were less rigid and more spontaneous than the monochromes for which he is best known.  Since I have little patience for monochromes (really, give me a bucket of paint and a canvas, and I can make a monochrome), I was hoping for something a bit more impressive than one color at a time.  These are, in fact, more than one color, but they are geometric shapes on paper; to me it seems as if there's nothing really artistic about them.  The work pictured above is by far the brightest of the set, so I liked it well enough.  Also, the blue in Image XVII is just stunning.  Other than that, I was able to glance at the works and move on quite quickly.

Verdict: If you like this sort of very abstract, geometric art, you'll find this show quite entertaining. 

Black Box: Gerco de Ruijter

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through November 12, 2013

Much as I have my issues with the Hirshhorn, I've always enjoyed the "Black Box" series.  Featuring artists who use videos as their artistic medium, they're quirky, odd films that I remember long after I've seen them.  This offering, by the Dutch artist Gerco de Ruijter, is a very short (only 4 minutes) film of center pivot irrigation plots in the American southwest.  Gathering images from Google Earth, de Ruijter synced them to a score by Michel Banabila.

The commentary outside the room discussed the tie between this film and Dutch still life paintings.  The idea is that both of these are meant to explore issues of ripeness and decay.  I found myself reminded quite strongly of a countdown clock, of the sort that used to appear before films.  I also thought of vinyl records playing on a turntable - something I'm sure would not suggest itself to younger viewers.  There's one point in the film that my eyes seemed to see a tunnel appear on screen - I'm guessing that's due to the rapid movement of the circular images.  And rapid is the word; the images each go by so quickly that you really can't focus on any one picture.  You can see only the overall idea.

Verdict: Go see this film; it's another good installment in this always intriguing series.

Inventing a Better Mousetrap: Patent Models from the Rothschild Collection

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through November 3, 2013

Every so often, the American Art Museum puts on a display dealing with patents, I assume due to the fact that the museum (along with the National Portrait Gallery) is located in the old Patent Office Building.  This small show contains several patent models from the largest existing collection of these items.

From 1836 - 1868, over 200,000 patent models were displayed on the top floor of the Patent Office Building, and in the 1850s, over 100,000 visitors per year came to see them.  Unlike in other countries, in the United States, an inventor had to submit a model along with a written description of the item in order to obtain a patent.  This was due to the fact that the patent examiners of the time lacked the sophistication to evaluate a patent without a model.  A whole host of model-making shops sprung up in the neighborhood surrounding the building (the neighborhood where my office is located).  In 1870, models were made optional, and in 1880, they were actually prohibited unless requested by the Commissioner of Patents.

This display consists of various models submitted at the time that these were required; one of them is a model for an imitation feather (made of colored yarn or thread) that was for one of the rare patents granted to a woman, Henrietta S. Orttlopp.  Another actually is a "better" mousetrap; a complicated device that involved the mouse taking a piece of cheese and then falling through a trap door.

Sadly, fire destroyed many of the models, and the need for office expansion led to the disposal of those that remained.   Some were returned to their original patent seekers, the rest were sold piecemeal to various collectors or other interested parties.  Alan Rothschild, a businessman from Cazenovia, NY, bought over 4,000 of them and has them on display in his home (which one can only imagine is quite large).  All of those on display here are from his collection.

Verdict: An interesting little show - easily managed in a lunch hour.  Recommended if you have an interest in the Penn Quarter neighborhood or the Portrait Gallery/American Art building.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Two small exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery & Archives of American Art

This week, I was able to see two shows: one at the National Portrait Gallery and one at the American Art Museum, sponsored by the Archives of American Art.  It's handy that these two museums are in the same building (which was once the Patent Office), as it allows the visitor to make good use of a lunch hour and see two shows in one trip.  They're even on the same floor, so you won't lose time traveling from one to the other.

The Art of Handwriting

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through October 27, 2013

Perhaps the best part of this exhibit for me was the description the archives had written which included the phrase, "elegant flourishes of cursive sashay across the page."  What a lovely way to describe handwriting.

I must admit, the premise of this show is one of which I'm rather skeptical.  The idea is that you can glean information about an artist or see elements of the artist's style in his or her handwriting.  I'm not so sure that's true, and some of the examples seemed to be trying too hard to make the hypothesis work.

A letter of Georgia O'Keefe's shows her lack of attention to grammar and spelling.  So, I not only don't like her art, I also don't like her writing - people who refuse to use commas generally don't have to read their own writing, and clearly have no concern for those who do.

Even if it is the case that artists write as they draw/sculpt/paint, I'm not sure that's terribly interesting.  Perhaps it's simply that I'm just not that intrigued by random letters.  I've read several books that are collections of letters between correspondents spanning several years, and I like those very much; you get a sense of the relationship between the writers.  One off letters, though, don't provide anything like that; there's no context for the correspondence.

I happened to be looking at the exhibit at the same time that a young woman came in with an older couple, and was showing them the display.  It was clear that she works for the Archives as she was telling them that they had contacted an expert on each artist to write the commentary for that artist's letter.  They actually got a much greater response to the project than they had anticipated, which is why some of the letters were mounted on the wall.  It's always interesting to hear a bit of the background of an exhibit, so I was glad to hear this information.

Verdict: If you find handwriting or letters of interest, this is the show for you! Everyone else can safely give this a miss.

Recent Acquisitions

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through October 27, 2013

Periodically, I think perhaps every six months, the National Portrait Gallery puts up a new set of works they've recently added to their collection.  It's always interesting to see what a museum decides to add - what works it considers worthy and appropriate for its collection.  I seem to remember discussing their philosophy the last time I saw one of these displays, so I won't go into it again.  Suffice it to say, that lots of thought goes into what they purchase.

This collection features both old and new paintings, of persons historical and modern, all famous (or at one time famous) for their contributions to American society, culture or politics.  You can see a wide variety of artistic styles, as well as a wide variety of subjects.  I noticed that a portrait of Samuel Adams hangs quite near to a portrait of Charles Townshend, whose acts Adams so vigorously opposed.  Also, the museum has purchased two examples of the Civil War figures series (Andrew Johnson and Edwin Stanton) done by the Ehrgott & Forbriger Lithography Co.  They point out that the backgrounds and bodies are exactly the same; they merely changed the faces!  There's a way to make portraits on the cheap.

Verdict: If you're in the museum anyway, it's worth a look at this hallway exhibit.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Old Tales Retold: Chinese Narrative Painting

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through October 20, 2013

Yet another lovely exhibit at the Freer, the most relaxing Smithsonian museum.  It's hard to think of a better way to unwind from a busy week than to go to the Freer on a Friday lunch hour and take in some beautiful things beautifully arranged.

This visit found me looking at Chinese narrative paintings - one of the first forms of pictorial art.  These are paintings that tell a story, replete with moral prescriptions for the viewer.  The figures are "paragons of virtue" (a phrase I have long enjoyed using in contexts more humorous than what is on view here) who remind those who gaze upon them of their own responsibilities in trying circumstances.  Since most people in 21st century America are not familiar with ancient Confucian teachings, the Freer is kind enough to provide summaries of the stories.

My favorite is "Tugging the Emperor's Robe," the story of an adviser to the Emperor who tugs on his robe in order to persuade him to reconsider a decision that could have led to catastrophe.  A version of speaking truth to power, I think, and a reminder that sometimes we all need to tug on someone's robe in order to make them reconsider wrong-headed notions.

An interesting pairing is "Gathering at the Orchard Pavilion," which depicts a springtime tradition of friends getting together by water to eat, drink and write poetry, with "Obtaining the Langting Manuscript by Deceipt," which tells the story of the emperor getting a copy of the preface to "Gathering at the Orchard Pavilion" from a monk who was concealing it.  Nothing like seeing the object that is the focus of a painting to make it come alive.

As with many of the Freer's shows of Chinese art, some of the paintings are full of vivid color, and others have darkened quite a bit over time.  With my love of color in art, I find my attention focused on the more lively offerings, but each piece has something to recommend it.

Verdict: When I have I ever not advised attending a show at the Freer?  A very pleasant outing, especially if you can combine it with a stroll over on a nice day.   

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Peter Coffin: Here & There

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through October 6, 2013

Imagine my delight long-time readers, two shows at the Hirshhorn in one week!  I combined them into one trip, but even so, it's a lot of Hirshhorn in a short period of time.

I always think this museum has nothing more to throw at me in the way of nuttiness, but then I feel my eyes rolling back in my head over an entirely new ridiculous idea.  This time, they've decided to have an exhibit without putting the pieces in one space.  Supposedly, the idea is to demonstrate the relationship that Peter Coffin has with other artists, by showing his work throughout the museum, and if you don't have space to put on a show, I guess that's a pretty good rationalization, but my guess is that this was more about logistics than artistic theory.

The show isn't very large, in the sense that it's not composed of very many pieces.  Just to give you a heads-up, there's one piece (actually a series of lithographs) on the 3rd floor, one piece in the outside atrium and two pieces on the Lower Level.  I spent quite a bit of time wandering around the second floor, thinking there might be something there, so if you go to see this, you can skip that floor entirely.

The lithographs on the 3rd floor, a series of designs for a poster company, are quite colorful, and I like color in my art.  Putting them all together seems to enhance the colors of each one, so I liked this just fine.  The piece outside is a spiral staircase that turns in on itself, think of an Escher print in three dimensions.  Interesting enough, but not something I'd want in my living room.

The lower level works include the big dog pictured above, and big is the word for him.  He's taller than I am, even though he's lying down, and I was a bit startled by just how big this work is.  Somehow, the pictures don't convey the monumental size.  The other piece on the lower level is a dim room, with pieces from the Hirshhorn's collection hanging on the walls.  Colored light is projected on the pieces.  I can't really tell you the point of this, as I couldn't quite figure it out.  Part of the problem, in my view, is that the room is so dim, that you can't make out what the pieces on the wall are.  I'm not sure if that would have made the work more self-explanatory, or if it's just weird, and no amount of further explanation is going to help.

Verdict: The individual pieces are okay, but having to trudge all over the museum to see them is an annoyance.

Directions: Jennie C. Jones: Higher Resonance

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through October 27, 2013

The latest in the museum's "Directions" series, this exhibit has as much to do with music as with art.  The visual portion of the display is acoustical panels, much like the one pictured: mostly grey, white and black, with accents of yellow.  Not much to look at, frankly.  You sit in a room with several of these panels fastened to the walls and listen to music.  It's peculiar, but then it's the Hirshhorn, so what would you expect?

The music has jazz influences that you can hear periodically, but it's not all jazz.  At one point, I thought it sounded like an orchestra tuning up.  Not sure if that's what it was, and I'm just too much of a philistine to appreciate how artistic that is, or if it was some kind of avant-garde musical genre, and I'm just too much of a philistine to recognize it.  Regardless, the higher message was lost on me.

There are also moments of silence; I say moments, but they last longer than a mere rest in a piece, so you find yourself wondering, "Is it over?"  "Is that all there is?"  Then the music begins again, and you realize you're in for several more minutes of looking at acoustical panels and listening to odd sounds.

Verdict: Worth a minute if you're on the 3rd floor anyway.  Don't feel obligated to take a seat and settle in for the long haul.  If you listen as you walk through, you'll get the gist of it.