Saturday, February 22, 2014

My Love-Hate Relationship with the Hirshhorn

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have issues with the Hirshhorn, the Smithsonian's museum dedicated to modern art.  From its ugly design (I call it the concrete doughnut) to its permanent collection of what my niece calls "silly art," my love-hate relationship with the Hirshhorn is light on the love and heavy on the hate.

An exception to my eye-rolling is the Hirshhorn's two series of videos.  They have one called Directions and one called Black Box.  I don't know the difference between them or how videos are chosen for one series or another, but I'm rarely disappointed with what I see.  The videos are weird, no question, but they are also intriguing or funny or thought-provoking in some way.

Recently, I've been to the Hirshhorn to see three things; two videos and one exhibit.  You can guess my thoughts on these, but I'm setting them down online anyway.

Gravity's Edge is the name of the exhibit I went to see.  It's on the lower level, so happily not one of the Bataan Death March shows you get on the second floor.  Despite the wall notes, I was unable to determine what this show had to do either with gravity or edges.  In fact, the wall notes were so confusing, I think I knew less once I'd finished reading them than I did to start.

The example you see above is by Lynda Benglis, and it's called "Corner Piece."  I would have called it "Spilled Paint," but that's just me.  There are some nice colors in some of this show's offerings, but I can't say they're really worth a trip to the Hirshhorn.

Verdict: You can safely skip this; there's nothing here that I'd run back to see.

On the other hand, there is something worth seeing on the Hirshhorn's lower level.  The latest installment in the Directions series is by Jeremy Deller and it's called "English Magic."  It's billed as being a commentary on quirky Englishness, and since Englishness is pretty quirky, there's plenty to comment on.  The background is a steel orchestra providing music, but the scene morphs to birds of prey, cars being crushed by huge machines (whose movements mimic those of the birds), an inflatable Stonehenge and a parade.

Verdict: It's bizarre, but it's fun.  Come for the music, stay for the inflatable Stonehenge - why don't I have one of those in my back yard...

As Monty Python used to say, "and now for something completely different."  "Los Encargados" which translates to "Those in Charge" is by Santiago Sierra and Jorge Galindo.  It's the latest in the Black Box series.  It's a video of several black Mercedes-Benz automobiles making their way down a busy street in Madrid.  Atop each car is a gigantic portrait of one of Spain's leaders.  Did I mention the portraits are upside-down?  I also noticed that the lettering in the shop windows you see as the cars pass is in mirror image.  Sometimes the video turns upside-down itself, so the portraits appear right-side up.  The music for this is a Polish workers' anthem from the early 1900s - frankly, it sounded like the theme song for the Politburo.

Verdict: Okay, it's odd, but it's clearly making a point.  I think if I knew more about recent Spanish political history, I would have gotten more out of it.  Still, it's worth a look.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Monuments Men: On the Frontline to Save Europe's Art, 1942-1946

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through April 20, 2014

In case you don't know, the Archives of American Art is contained within the Museum of American Art.  They have one room dedicated to their use, and except for when they're changing displays, there's always a show.  Now that the Christmas season is behind us for another year, the card display has been put away, and the Archives is riding the George Clooney wave.

For those of you living under a rock, George Clooney has recently released a movie about the Monuments Men, the group of art historians, archivists and librarians that worked during World War II, first to protect historic buildings from Allied bombing, and then found art the Nazis had stolen from all over Europe.  For those of us who love art, their work cannot be valued highly enough.  Most people had never heard of the Monuments Men until the release of this recent film, but now they are enjoying a great vogue. 

The Smithsonian holds the papers of several of the Monuments Men, and this display shows their letters, their working papers and photographs of the men and those with whom they worked.  Of course, it's always hard to make documents into something exciting, but the subject matter does a good job of holding one's interest here.  One figure with whom I was unfamiliar before I saw this exhibit is Rose Valland, a French art historian.  She was captured by the Nazis and used her situation to spy on her captors (who didn't know she spoke German) to find out the location of many hidden treasures.  She risked her life to save stolen art, and was to prove a valuable ally to the Monuments Men in their work.

Verdict: If you have any interest in this subject, check out this small exhibit.  The real Monuments Men are not so photogenic as their Hollywood counterparts, but their story is fascinating nonetheless.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 7, 2014

The latest in a series of exhibits in the African American History space on the second floor of American History, this display is divided into two parts.  As the title indicates, the first part is about the Emancipation Proclamation and the 1860s generally.  The second part is about the March on Washington in 1963 and events leading up to that.  At the entrance to the show, you are directed to choose which section you will see first: one sign leads to 150 years ago, the other to 50 years ago.  It's very effective; you feel immediately as if you are stepping back in time.

The part on the 1860s gives a good background description of what life was like for persons of African descent in America in the 19th century.  As one of the wall notes indicates, "America's promise of freedom is filled with contradiction."  That's certainly true, and the terrible conditions in which African-Americans were forced to live were certainly not conducive to their pursuit of happiness.  Perhaps the saddest item in the entire display are the child-sized shackles mounted on the wall.  Also included in the 1863 section is Nat Turner's Bible, donated by the descendants of a slaveholding family who survived the rebellion, the inkstand used by Lincoln in drafting the Proclamation, and a picture of Gordon, the slave with the horrible back wounds, that I'd seen at the National Portrait Gallery in one of their exhibits.

Of course, all the gains experienced by African-Americans after the war were ended with the beginning of segregation in the 1890s.  The percentage of African-Americans voting in the South plummeted once poll taxes and literacy tests and other barriers to exercising the franchise were put in place.  Which brings us to the second part of the exhibit, the March on Washington of 1963.

The 1963 March was not the first gathering of persons concerned about the rights of African-Americans.  An earlier march, organized in 1941 to protest inequalities in wages, was canceled after President Franklin Roosevelt prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industries.  In 1957, A. Philip Randolph led a prayer pilgrimage dealing with segregation in southern schools.  Martin Luther King spoke to over 25,000 people in attendance.  The 1963 March brought in over 250,000 people, who behaved in a peaceful manner, much to the relief of the Kennedy Administration and others who had feared violence.  Sadly, there were no women speakers that day; women were relegated to roles as performers or "behind the scenes" workers.  A pity.

Verdict: A very good, interesting, thought-provoking display.  It's manageable in a lunch hour, although you may want more time to listen to the videos in each section.

Making Marks: Prints from Crow's Shadow Press

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through May 2014

The exact closing date for this show is not listed on the Smithsonian website, although I seem to recall seeing May 26 as the last day somewhere.  You've got some time to wander over to that side of the Mall, in any event.

Crow's Shadow Press is located in Oregon and provides an artistic home for both Native and non-Native contemporary artists.  Founded in 1992, its purpose is to provide opportunities for Native Americans through artistic development.  It provides spaces to teach, create and show art; the classes are on a wide variety of topics, not just print-making (copyright is among the offerings).

Although I'm just not a fan of prints generally, the works of James Lavadour did hold my interest.  The work shown in this display is of places he visited on camping trips with his family when he was a child.  All of the land has now been clear-cut; it's as if this part of his past has simply been erased.  As he says, "the places that I remember do not exist anymore."  I suppose all of us could make this same comment, as nothing remains static.  There's a certain poignancy to this idea that has remained with me since I saw the show.  It's so easy to take our regular haunts for granted, but they can be "paved over" at any time.  Best to appreciate them now.

Verdict: If you like prints, this is a nice small show, easily managed in a lunch hour.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Camilla's Purse

Where: American History Museum

When: through May 4, 2014

This week, I had an experience at a museum exhibit that I have never had before.  I went to see this show, thinking it would be very interesting (which it is), but never suspecting that I would know personally one of the people featured in it.

Camilla Gottlieb was a Jewish woman living with her husband and daughter in Vienna when the Nazis invaded, and her life was completely upended.  Although her daughter (who was a young adult at the time) was able to escape to the United States, Camilla and her husband were shut out by American immigration quotas.  Forced to remain in Austria, they were sent to Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia used as a sort of way station before prisoners were sent on to camps where they would most likely be killed.  Camilla's husband died of a lung infection in the camp, but she survived, and remained at Theresienstadt, due in part to the help of a relative and her own skills as a seamstress.

After the war, Camilla faced years of work in order to move to the United States to join her daughter, son-in-law and their sons, but she managed to do it.  After her death, her family found a purse and satchel she had used to store important documents from her life before the war and from her struggle to escape Europe during and after the conflict.  Viewed together, they constitute a history of this part of the American experience.  She was one woman, not a famous person, but an ordinary woman, who persevered in the face of horrible conditions to reunite with her family.  This display is a testament to her strength and resilience in the face of obstacles that, happily, most of us will never have to endure.

In addition to the purse and the documents, there is also a video display, featuring the person who translated the documents from German to English, and one of Camilla's grandsons, who discovered the purse when cleaning out the family home.  Imagine my surprise to discover that the grandson is someone who works in my office!  Never before have I been to an exhibit and had a personal connection to it.

Verdict: This is a wonderful exhibit; it's in the Small Documents Gallery, so it works very well for a lunchtime visit.  The story is one of perseverance - a reminder that we all have reserves of strength to get us through the darkest moments.

Saying Goodbye to the Dinosaurs

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through April 28, 2014

I went over to Natural History this week in order to take one last look at the exhibits on dinosaurs and fossils before they close for the foreseeable future.  The entire area is getting a massive renovation, which won't be complete until 2019.  As much as I hate to see such a big and crowd-pleasing part of the museum close for such a long time, this area is in desperate need of a makeover.

This is not the dinosaur exhibit that I remember from childhood, but one that was opened in 1981.  As much of an improvement as this doubtless is over what was there before (my memories are a bit dim, since we're talking some 40 years ago), compared to the museum's newer areas (the Sant Ocean Hall, the Hall of Mammals, the exhibit on human origins), this is dull in the extreme.

The colors are drab, the notes are dense paragraphs of hard-to-follow text and the displays are row upon row of fossils.  What should be a fascinating display of the earliest forms of life on earth are just, well, boring.  The wonderful text notes are the things I miss most - the easy to read and understand explanations in some of the newer areas are not here, and they make a huge difference.

Even the dinosaurs, which are anything but dull, are jammed together in a tight space - I'm hoping the redo will allow the museum to spread these out, so you can see each specimen on its own.  The money for the refurbishment is coming from the Koch brothers, who bankrolled the dinosaur display at the Museum of Natural History in New York.  I've heard that  exhibit is excellent, so I've got high hopes for what the end of the decade will bring us.

Verdict: Go to see this area of the museum (there are five different sections covering fossils generally and dinosaurs specifically) before it closes.  Then you can wait patiently for the new display!