Monday, October 28, 2013

In/finite Earth: A National Juried Exhibition for Emerging Artists with Disabilities, Ages 16-25

Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 2014

I had planned to see this show right after the government re-opened, but when I went over to the Ripley, it wasn't up yet.  Obviously, they hadn't been able to get it in place before the shutdown, unlike the Sackler's yoga exhibit.

No matter, it's up now, and in a new, nicer space.  This show is a display of contest-winning art work by young artists with disabilities.  The idea behind the contest is to encourage these folks as they're deciding whether to make art their life work.  Not only do the award winners get to see their work exhibited in a traveling show (so to speak), but they also get a cash prize, made available by Volkswagen, which co-sponsors the contest.  The winners are on display at the Ripley every year, and I look forward to seeing what each year will bring in the way of new artists.  My thought is that, when one of them makes it REALLY big, I'll be able to say, "Oh yes, I saw his/her work years ago..."  Dare to dream, I always say, even if it's only about the success of other people.

In years past, it's been presented in the hallway leading from the concourse to the International Gallery.  It's a small show (there are 15 winners), so it doesn't require a lot of room, but the hallway isn't the most inviting space, and I think there just isn't much foot traffic there.  Frankly, there's not a lot of foot traffic at the Ripley period, so the show needs all the help it can get.  This year, it was in the main concourse itself, which is far better.  There's much more room, so each artist's work has plenty of display area.  You don't have everything displayed practically each on top of the other, and it's easier to evaluate each artist separately.  I know that displaying paintings one on top of the other is a legitimate style, but I just don't care for it.  It just seems too higgledy-piggledy to me.  So sue me, I'm not a fan of salon display.

The one criticism I would make is that the plaques describing the work and giving some details about the artist are placed very low.  Even someone as short as I am had to stoop to read them.  I kept thinking the whole time that I wished they were higher on the wall.  Someone tall would be quite uncomfortable, I think.

The stories of the artists and how they've overcome their disabilities, or used them to express their artistic talent is quite amazing.  One person in particular, Emilie Gossiaux, was diagnosed with severe hearing loss at age 5, then lost her sight in a bicycle accident when she was in college.  I couldn't blame her if she'd just given up her artwork at that point, but she's still creating.  Her sculpture, Bird Sitting was lovely; I was shocked when I read that she is blind.  It's a small white clay piece; the wings look like hands, so it's a portrait of a bird and of a person.   It was my favorite piece in the show.

The other item that really caught my eye was one by a dyslexic artist, Madalyne Hymans.  It's about her dyslexia and people's (boneheaded) responses to it.  It's a large rectangle, with quotes from various teachers, fellow students, and others with whom she's interacted, about dyslexia and how it means she's stupid or lazy.  Her artwork clearly proves them wrong, and I wish her well in her career.  Doesn't the quote go, "Living well is the best revenge"?  I hope it proves true for her.

Verdict:  Well worth a visit, as usual with this show.  The new setting does much more justice to the artists' work than the hallway!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sense of Place: Landscape Photographs from Asia

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through November 11, 2013

If yoga is not your thing, or if you've seen enough of this big show and would like to look at something completely different, wander over to the other side of the Sackler and see some more contemporary art, landscape photographs. 

This is the first in a series of shows highlighting the gallery's photography collection, so if this appeals to you, you're in for further treats to come.  Although one might associate the Sackler with ancient treasures, it is committed to collecting modern works as well, and this series is meant to emphasize that commitment.

This two-room display features artists from Iran, China, Japan and Vietnam, a wide survey of Asian photography.  My favorite of the pieces is the one pictured above, entitled Cherry Blossoms by Moryama Daido.  A great quotation from Abbas Kiarostami, which is part of the show commentary, is "Nature has no particular culture or ethnicity."  Perhaps that's why I'm able to appreciate Asian landscape painting so much?  I don't need to be an expert in a culture so different from my own; I can simply appreciate the natural beauty depicted.

Another artist whose work is on display is Hai Bo.  I'm sure I've seen him before - perhaps as part of the "Perspectives" series?  Wasn't he the one who returned to the same spot over the course of a year and drew the different seasons as reflected in the trees?  I feel certain that's right...

Verdict: A nice small show, easily managed in a lunch hour; in fact, you could combine it with the Strange and Wondrous show, or with a look at the current "Perspectives" display in the main atrium.

Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India from the Robert J. Del Bonta Collection

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through January 5, 2014

This one room exhibit is a nice accompaniment to the yoga show, as it deals with art about India, specifically with Western impressions of India.  The more global travel increased and the more Europeans and Americans were able to travel to India, the greater grew the interest in this country and its culture.  Increased travel brought a greater knowledge of Indian culture, but also increased the opportunity for stereotyped views to proliferate.

Just as the final part of the yoga exhibit demonstrated, negative views of Indian religious figures were everywhere - they were depicted as tricksters, among other things.  Western observers didn't understand Indian religious practices, especially the aesthetics, who renounced society, and interpreted their actions through a Christian framework.  These depictions began as early as 1675 and continued through the Victorian era.

For their part, Indians were unable to explain their culture or religious practices to Westerners, so the lack of understanding existed on both sides.  Europeans and Americans tended to categorize Indians either as aesthetic saints or as criminals, with little middle ground.  Eventually, they turned against the holy men, and viewed them with disgust, as vagabonds.  Interestingly enough, this viewpoint came to the fore at the same time as they turned against vagrants in Britain itself.  The British Raj also attempted to regulate religious ceremonies according to their own principles.  All in all, a lack of understanding on both sides that fed on itself.

If you're thinking that the picture above is a Norman Rockwell, you're quite right.  You can imagine my surprise to see this in a show about India.  It was done during WWII and shows an American GI amazing a fakir with a rope trick of his own.  This is one of the milder depictions of Indian holy men.

The show focuses on Western art about India, so I felt as if I wasn't learning much about India itself, but more about Western views of India.

Verdict: A nice addition to the yoga show - if you've got enough time, you could add this on to your visit.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through January 26, 2013

Long time readers of this blog can well imagine my delight at seeing three shows at the Sackler in one week.  To walk over to my favorite museum in lovely weather is such a treat, and the shows I went to see were all interesting.  Who could ask for anything more?

The first exhibit I saw was on yoga and its artistic representations through history.  Since I've been practicing yoga since 2006, I was eager to see this show and had been counting down the days to its opening for months.  It was very fortunate that the government shutdown ended just before the opening.  I was wondering, in fact, how much work they would have been able to do on the show, and if it would look thrown together at the last minute, but they must have had this set up weeks ahead of time, as it's quite large and clearly required a vast deal of work to set up.

Yoga has been around, in one form or another, for centuries.  It began in northern India, between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE and was part of three major religious traditions: Hindu, Jain and Buddhist.  Both men and women practitioners of yoga renounced society and lived in austerity.  There are two concepts that were central to the thinking of people at that time.  One is karma, which is the idea that actions produce results and the other was samsara, which is the idea that humans go through a perpetual cycle of inherently painful lives.  Yogis and yoginis (female yogis) retreated from society in order to escape samsara, which they believed could be accomplished by their austere way of life.  Common people from all three religious traditions established a practice of worshiping these enlightened renouncers.  The first room shows artistic representations of these people, mostly statutes.  They're in quite good condition, minus the occasional hand, of course.

A subset of the yoga of the period was the Tantric tradition.  It involved a set of practices that frankly seemed quite bizarre to me, including haunting (their word) cremation grounds, and carrying skull cups.  I'm afraid this name was a literal description.  Orthodox Hinduism eventually co-opted the Tantric followers; they moderated their practices and became mainstream.

In the section entitled "The Path of Yoga," we see representations of people practicing yoga, meditation or austerity.  I liked the works here; some of them are very colorful, despite their age.  Some lovely landscapes are also included.  Yogis were travelers, and as such, became quite useful to the ruling elites as covert agents.  Yogi spies - who knew?

I'm always interested to see how various cultures treated women, and yoginis were just as important as yogis.  They were viewed as very powerful and possessed of magical powers.  Sometimes, they were depicted as erotic princesses, but they were also valued for their fighting skills.  I got no sense from this show that they were second class citizens at all.

At this point, one might think the show ends.  I went back out to the main atrium and was on my way back to work, when I happened to look across the space and see another room, painted a different color.  I glanced in and realized it was another part of the yoga show.  Much as it pains me to criticize the Sackler, they might have either used the same paint color, or put up a sign indicating that the show continued.

The other part of the show involved European depictions of yoga, beginning in the 1800s.  As you might expect, they had no real understanding of yoga, and why people who practiced it lived as they did.  The popular press latched on to the aspects of the practice that could be best exploited in the West, and never bothered to explain why these wild "fakirs" practiced yoga.  The charlatan with matted hair was a common depiction, in the newspapers, in books and magazines and in the movies.  A Thomas Edison film, "The Hindoo Fakir" is playing in the room.  It's as stereotypical as you think it's going to be.

In the late 19th century, yoga began to be marketed in the West for its healthful properties, and there were scientific studies done to show that the practice wasn't merely for con men.   The modern practice of yoga comes from the 1896 publication, Raja Yoga by Swami Vivekehanda.  This publication stressed yoga as as spiritual system and a source of pride for Indians.  Another video shows yogis in various asanas (postures) - not looking like wild snake charmers at all.

A side note: at the back of this room, I noticed a door leading to the African Art Museum.  I didn't realize the two were connected, except through the Ripley.  Truly, you learn something new every day!

Verdict: If you have any interest in yoga or Indian culture or history, don't miss this very large show.  If you only have a lunch hour, you'll need to move quickly, or take two trips.  The Sackler has re-opened with a bang.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen

Where: Museum of African Art

When: through February 9, 2014

First of all, hale and hallelujah that the shutdown has ended, and the Smithsonian is open again! As you can imagine, it was a long and horrible 17 days, with no exhibits to see.  I could feel my brain cells shrinking due to lack of intellectual stimulation.

I went to the Mall several times over the last few weeks to gaze at the buildings and pout.  Happily, the Haupt Garden behind the Castle was open (not sure why, as it would have been easy enough to shut the gates), and I spent some time sitting there, taking in the fall flowers.  Still, no substitute for going to an actual exhibit.

Now, however, the Smithsonian is back in business, and my plan for the foreseeable future is to see as many shows as I possibly can, just in case we go through this insanity again in January.  Truly, this is no way to run a banana stand.

The first show I saw after the shutdown ended was a collection of Roger Ballen's work at the Museum of African Art.  Ballen is actually an American, who has lived and worked in South Africa for over 30 years.  It's difficult to describe his photographs; they're sort of collages, involving people, animals, objects and drawings of lines.  The picture above is typical of what you'll see.  In addition to over 50 photographs, there's also a video.

I had high hopes when I went over to the Museum, as I've found that I like contemporary African art very much.  Yinka Shonibare, for example, is my favorite artist.  I also very much enjoyed the Laila Essaydi show I saw a while ago.  This, however, was really bizarre.  I can't tell you what any of this was supposed to mean, or symbolize, as I could make neither hide nor hair out of it.  It was as if I was trying to have a conversation with someone speaking a language I couldn't understand.  I wanted to say to Ballen, "I just don't know what you mean."

Perhaps my exile from the museum world has made my brain sluggish, and I should have another look at this before it closes, in hopes of seeing something more in these photographs.  On the other hand, perhaps they're just weird.

Verdict: If you're a fan of Ballen, this is a great show, with examples of his many series of photographs, along with a video.  If surreal collages are not your cup of tea, you can safely give this a miss.