Sunday, June 29, 2014

Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: January 15, 2015

I really like the Sealaska Gallery on the 2nd floor of the NMAI.  It's big enough to hold a small show comfortably, and I don't feel as if I have to rush through to see everything.

Continuing with the photography theme from my last post, this display is photographs of Native Americans, created with a platinum print process.  In the 19th century, photographers used this medium to take photos of Native Americans, to depict them as a vanishing race.  The process allows the photographer to "take the edge off" the subject, to allow a certain fuzzy quality to creep in, to create a romantic feeling of nostalgia for the end of an era.

Many Native Americans today have negative feelings about these depictions, and these two artists use the method in order to reclaim it for their own, to show Native Americans as they truly are, not as outsiders might wish them to be.

An excellent example is the photograph here, of Nakotah La Rance by Will Wilson.  Although shown at rest, he is squatting on the stool, as if ready to spring into action.  He's shown with a traditional dance hoop around his shoulder, but also with earphones, a game console and some Japanese manga.  This is not your great-grandfather's "Indian."  Far from vanishing, this race of people still exists, still adapts to new cultural influences, still keeps traditional practices alive.

Verdict: Yet another reminder that photography is not the objective medium we'd like to think it is.  Well worth a look if you are interested in photography or Native American history.

Sitebound: Photography from the Collection

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through September 1, 2014

I always have low expectations when I head to the Hirshhorn (unless it's to see one of their videos, which are terrific), but I found myself disappointed in this show, not because of the content, but because of the display itself.  Usually, I think what they have on offer is "silly art" as my niece would say, but many of the photos were interesting.  The one featured here reminded me strongly of the photos of Mars I saw at Air and Space not long ago.

In addition, there was a photograph of people at a Berlin museum that I found fascinating (no surprise there, I'm always drawn to photos or paintings of people in museums).  One criticism I will make of the show itself is that the wall notes mentioned a series of photos of Disney "after hours," a behind-the-scenes look at the park, which I thought might be interesting - instead, there was only one picture, and I couldn't even tell you what it was.  One piece does not a series make.

My real beef with this show is the display.  Generally, I think the Smithsonian does a fantastic job with their shows.  They're well organized; there's a flow to the arrangement; it's easy to progress from one part to another.  As I mentioned in my write-up of the "Star Spangled Banner" display, when they want to put up a show-stopper, they can do it and then some.  This show, however, is the opposite of that.  It's in two rooms, on either side of the escalator, with some photos around the escalator.  It made it very hard to concentrate on the pieces, as I was looking around for the rest of the show.  I understand that this is (I'm assuming) because most of the 2nd floor is closed so they can set up a display to open next fall.  With the third floor closed entirely (not sure if that's for renovation or due to budget cuts), and the lower level devoted to videos, it really doesn't leave them much space for this exhibit.  Still, I would either have put this show off, or put it in the main hallway, rather than squeeze it into this awkward area.

Verdict: If you're here to see one of the videos, you could wander up to the 2nd floor and have a look.  Otherwise, I don't know that I'd make a special trip.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Cupcake Katy

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through July 6, 2014

Out with the old and in with the new!  In the same place I had gone to see Maya Angelou's portrait last week, there's now one of Katy Perry hanging.  I could make any number of comments on replacing a cultural giant with a pop singer, but it's a bit unfair to expect everyone to live up to the standard of someone as multi-talented as Angelou, so I'll refrain.

The painting itself is quite interesting, a reflection on consumerism, junk food, pop culture and celebrity worship, which is a lot to ask of a painting of a popular singer.  I was reminded of Andy Warhol's work on the same themes; it's nice to know someone's still examining our relationship with "stars" and the influence we allow them to have over our lives and tastes.

Verdict: Not worth a special trip, but if you're in the museum to see something else, it's worth a few minutes to have a look.

"Star-Spangled Banner" Manuscript

Where: American History Museum

When: through July 6, 2014

In honor of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 (which lasted until 1815) and timed to begin with Flag Day and end with the Fourth of July weekend, the American History Museum is displaying the original manuscript of the Star Spangled Banner.  It's in the display area with the flag itself, as you might expect, and if you're going to the museum any time soon, you'll want to make a point of seeing it.

When I was a child on class trips in the 1970s, American History was my favorite of the museums.  One of my most vivid memories is of the flag hanging from the ceiling, tattered, but "still there."  A number of years ago, it was determined that what the British couldn't manage, wear and tear (and some very bad treatment early on) would do, and the flag was taken off display to be restored.  If my memory serves me correctly, visitors were able to watch the conservators at their work.  As I mentioned in my write up of "The Rex Room" at Natural History, I can't imagine anything worse than people gawking at you as you try to get things done.

Now, the flag has been preserved and re-displayed in dim light, behind glass, safe for future generations to see.  I hadn't been in the exhibit in quite a while, and I was reminded that when the Smithsonian wants to devote a lot of time and money to a display, they can turn out a show stopper.  The explanations of the War and the history of the flag are great.  The other objects displayed in the area complement the text admirably.  It's all very well done and an example of what you can do to make history (even the War of 1812, not the most exciting of American wars) of interest to visitors.

Adding the manuscript is a nice touch.  It does feel a bit "added on," which of course, it is.  It's in front of the flag itself, also encased in glass.  I actually missed it when I went through and had to go back to see it!  It's on loan from the Maryland Historical Society, so thanks to them for sharing one of their treasures. Frankly, it's an old piece of paper with writing on it, so it's not very scintillating to look at, but it's a piece of history, so worth seeing - even if only to say later that you've seen it!

Note that, if you're planning on a "Star Spangled Banner"-themed visit, you can also see the gown Renee Fleming wore when she sang the national anthem at the last Super Bowl.  I'm not much of a fan of these displays of clothing (Marion Anderson's outfit from when she sang at the Lincoln Memorial being an exception).  If I were more of a girly girl, maybe I'd feel differently, and if you love to look at dresses, have at it.  It's on the 2nd floor not far from the flag display.

Verdict: A great way to celebrate the nation's birthday - have a look before it returns to Baltimore.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Celebrating Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through September 7, 2014

There are some new Van Gogh paintings at the National Gallery, and the museum has highlighted their collection of Van Goghs to celebrate.  One of the paintings, in fact, the one pictured here, is on loan from a museum in the Netherlands; the other two are permanent additions to the collection, from the Mellon family.

Portrait of Monsieur Roulin is a fine example of Van Gogh's signature brushstrokes; they appear to particular advantage in Roulin's magnificent beard.  Roulin was Van Gogh's best friend during his time in Arles; he painted several paintings of the Roulins, including the painting here of M. Roulin and another, exhibited a few feet away, of one of his children.  So, it's not just a celebration of Van Gogh's art, but a sort of family reunion as well.

The room where these are displayed contains some Degas and Gaugin paintings as well; a couple of which were familiar to me from the Gaugin show a while ago.  Happily, no one seemed likely to throw themselves at any of the works (as happened during the big Gaugin display).  It occurs to me that you could add this on to a visit to the Degas/Cassatt show, and get your fill of Degas in one trip.

Verdict: If you like Van Gogh, make time to see this visiting painting, as well as the rest of the Van Gogh collection, now the richer by two paintings.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

James Nares’ Street

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through July 6, 2014

Two firsts for me in this exhibit: my first video display at the National Gallery and my first trip to the Project Room.  Just when you think there's nothing new to see at a museum, you get to experience something out of the ordinary.

In case you've never been to the Project Room either, it's on the Ground Floor.  You go through a doorway (that I confess I've never noticed before) in the exhibit on American Furniture.  The doorway is marked "Lecture Hall," and there is a lecture hall at the end of the hallway, but the Project Room is off to the left, just before you get to the Lecture Hall.  I had no idea any of this was there - makes me wonder what other exhibit spaces I'm missing out on?

James Nares was born in Britain, but has adopted New York City as his home.  This film is an homage to this bustling town, so full of people and traffic and stores, so full of movement.  The technique he used to make the film is complicated, but basically involves taking 6-second shots of street scenes, using very high-definition film.  He then strung these bits of film together to make a sort of movie.  It's as if the people are moving in super slow motion.  They seem to be standing still, but then you'll see movement - a waving hand, or a step forward, and you realize they are moving.

It's difficult to describe, but it's hypnotic to watch.  The full video is about an hour in length, so I didn't have time to watch all of it.  Amazingly enough, I think I could have sat there and watched the whole thing without growing bored, which, considering there's no plot or dialogue, is quite a statement.  I was reminded of the films I've seen at the Hirshhorn: odd, thought-provoking, memorable.  Street is all of that.

Verdict: Don't miss this great video - make a special trip to the National Gallery; it's worth it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Lost Bird Project

Where: Smithsonian Gardens

When: through March 15, 2015

This is the first time I've seen an exhibit at the Smithsonian Gardens.  I've been in the Haupt Garden, behind the Castle, many times on my way to the Sackler or the Museum of African Art, and I've walked past the Natural History Museum more times than I can count, but this is the first time I went there with the intention of seeing something in the garden.

Todd McGrain has created these bronze sculptures of birds that are now extinct in order to remind us of what we have lost, and to prompt us not to let this happen again.  The passenger pigeon is outside of the Natural History Museum, and the notes next to the sculpture tell the viewer that passenger pigeons were once so abundant that no predator could make a dent in their numbers.  I was reminded of the book Cod that described just such amounts of the fish, which was caught by humans in so methodical a manner that they were nearly eliminated entirely.

Although passenger pigeons were immune from the attacks of animal predators, against humans they were not so fortunate.  The massive formations of birds were hunted for food and for sport, and the last one died in captivity in 1914.  A sad loss, even if the world is still full of pigeons.

In the Haupt Garden, there are four additional sculptures: the Heath Hen, the Carolina Parakeet, the Great Auk and the Labrador Duck.  Unfortunately, there are no notes accompanying these birds, so I don't know how they died out.  I wish they would add some information to the display, so that I could learn something about these species that are no longer with us.

The sculptures are quite nice - very dark and somber looking, as I suppose is only appropriate, given that they have vanished from the earth.  I'm not sure where they'll go once they are off display next March, but perhaps they might find permanent homes in the DC area.  I noticed that the notes at the Haupt Garden (they have a general description of the project there) indicated that these are the sculptures completed "to date."  I can only hope that more will appear in the future.

Verdict:  If you're walking past Natural History or on your way past the Castle, take a moment to look at these birds.  They are lovely works of art, and a needed reminder of our duty to preserve wildlife.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Mathew Brady's Photographs of Union Generals

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through March 31, 2015

Just down the hallway from the Maya Angelou portrait is a small display of photographs taken in Matthew Brady's studio of Civil War generals from the Union side.  Although Brady is best known for his battlefield pictures, his studio was sufficiently well-regarded at the time that officers who wanted their portraits taken would go to him.

Interestingly enough, in addition to selling the photos to the generals themselves, Brady also made up small postcard sized prints to sell to the public.  They collected them, and when one general replaced another in the field, they would replace the photograph on their mantelpiece.  It struck me that they were much like baseball cards.

Although the Union had some very fine generals, some of the people who led the Army in battle were just dreadful.  Often, men with no military experience would be given commands, simply due to their political connections.  Unsurprisingly, they usually met with disastrous results.  One can't help but feel for the men in their charge.

Verdict: Worth a look if you're interested in the Civil War; otherwise, not a must-see.

In Memoriam: Maya Angelou

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through June 12, 2014

I've noticed that when someone famous dies, the National Portrait Gallery will often display a portrait of them (assuming they have one, of course).  It's now Maya Angelou's turn in this melancholy spotlight.  Her portrait was painted by Ross Rossin.  When I went to see it, I thought it was a photograph, but when I went to copy the picture seen at left from the website, I noticed that the blurb said it was a painting.  Two of his other works (Henry Aaron and Morgan Freeman) are across the hallway; I thought they were all photos, but I'm assuming they're actually all paintings.  The realism is incredible; you would swear they were photographs.  They're all giant heads, much larger than life-size.  They're very impressive and imposing - not the sort of thing I'd hang in my home, but they work very well in a museum setting.

Maya Angelou was a multi-talented woman: she was a singer, a poet and a writer of memoirs.  The wall notes indicate that although her memoirs might not be strictly accurate, they were a "retelling of emotional truths."  I'm not sure at what point your liberties with actual events take you out of the realm of memoir and into the realm of fiction, but I'm guessing Angelou was well on the non-fiction side of the line.

Verdict:  It's a shame that it was only after her death that I saw this painting; I'll keep my eye out for more Rossin works in future.