Sunday, September 28, 2014

A visit to the Sant Ocean Hall

Where: Natural History Museum

When: Fall 2015

I took a stroll over to the Natural History Museum this week, as much to enjoy the delightful weather as to see anything in particular.  There are three small exhibits in the Sant Ocean Hall that I glanced over, and they're worth checking out if you happen to be in the museum anyway.

The first is "Portraits of Planet Ocean: the Photographs of Brian Skerry."  If you like nature photography, this is a delight.  It focuses on underwater life, as you might have guessed from the title and is a reminder that what lies beneath the surface of the ocean is remarkable.

There's also a small case providing information on the Census of Marine Life.  This project involved scientists worldwide and provided the opportunity to obtain, for the first time, a baseline picture of the ocean.

Finally, another small display showcases the work of artist Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh, whose work is inspired by tiny ocean pteropods, or "sea butterflies."  As small as a grain of sand, they are threatened by ocean acidification.  Her work is abstract, but based on forms found in nature.

Verdict: When you're next in the Sant Ocean Hall, don't miss these small, but interesting, displays.

Speculative Forms

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through September 27, 2015

Arrayed through the hallways on the 2nd and 3rd floors, this exhibit of sculpture promises to turn one's "preconceived notions of sculpture inside out."  I can't say I felt much notion inversion while I walked around, but I will say I've not seen sculpture so well placed before.  Just at eye level and in the middle of the space, so you can walk around and look at each piece easily and completely.  I might not have fallen in love with what I saw, but at least I had a good look at it.

I was interested to see two Henry Moore pieces.  I've a fondness for his "Knife Edge Mirror Two Piece" that stands guard over the entrance of the National Gallery's East Building.  When I read the plate that identified the artist of the two pieces, I recognized them as his work.  How exactly I can't say, but they looked reminiscent of the other pieces of his I've seen.

Another piece that caught my eye was one made of paper and ink that looked exactly like a sofa cushion.  How did the artist manage this?!?

Verdict: If you like contemporary sculpture, you'll get more out of this than I did, but I have nothing but praise for how the show is arranged.

Better late than never: my trip to the Corcoran

Washington, DC has many museums other than the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art.  The reason I don't visit them is that they charge for admission, and since I only have a limited time to spend, I don't think it's worth it to pay $20+ to see one exhibit.  Besides, the Smithsonian and National Gallery are world class, so it's not as if I'm having to settle for second best, by limiting my visits to them.

The Corcoran, which is (I believe) the oldest art museum in DC, has recently been taken over by the National Gallery, so it's no longer charging admission.  There was a great kerfluffle over this; if you're interested in the play-by-play, see the Washington Post website for full details.

Now that this is another free DC museum, I headed over there to have a look at its collection.  Not wanting to just wander around aimlessly, I opted for the guided tour.  The docent was excellent, and we saw many lovely pieces.  Not just classic art: statues and oil paintings, but quite modern items as well.  The Corcoran has its own version of the Peacock Room; theirs is a room a French count had built for his princess fiancee.  Imagine France, circa 1788, and you'll have an idea of the decor: heaps of gold everywhere and terribly ornate.  Not exactly to my taste, I'm afraid.

But imagine my surprise and delight, to see a Yinka Shonibare in the center of the room! "Girl on Globe 2" is, at first, anachronistic.  A symbol of globalization and a herald of the problems of global warming, she seems out of place amidst the gilt and the rococo.  Of course, given a little thought, she's perfectly situated.  She has no head, and she stands directly opposite a clock that once belonged to Marie Antoinette.  Her style of dress would have fit right in amongst the nobility of late 18th century France.  She is, literally, on top of the world, and the people who used this room thought they were, figuratively, as well.  All in all, a brilliant juxtaposition.

The museum is a bit shabby, if I'm being truthful.  I also saw no evidence of a gift shop - a first in my experiences of museums.  I'm assuming this is because the place is closing shortly.  According to the docent who led my tour, lots of work needs to be done on the building, and then it can be used again.  For what exactly, I don't know.  Perhaps for swanky receptions?  Perhaps as overflow exhibit space for the National Gallery?  I just hope that wherever the Shonibare piece ends up, I can see it again.

Verdict: If you have a chance to visit before it closes (not sure exactly when that is, but soon), you'll find some good pieces and an interesting building.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through June 7, 2015

A few posts ago, I described seeing this installation as it was assembled.  Now, I went to see the finished product.  I thought I might find it less interesting than usual, since I'd seen part of it already, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Having the wall notes to explain the work gave me a context for the display which was quite helpful.  Shiota has gathered together shoes that have been discarded by their owners; some she gets from friends, others from second-hand stores.  When she can, she has the former owner of the shoes write a note about the significance of the shoes that she then attaches to the shoe in question.  She sets up the shoes on the floor and attaches each of them to a central point on the wall behind them with red yarn.  Thus, even though these shoes were from many different people and have no relationship one to the other, they are all connected.

I think of it as a reminder that human beings may be strangers, but we're all humans living on this planet and thus connected.  Many of the shoes, although all from Japan, were ones you might see in the United States - further proof of our connectedness.  I also couldn't help but think of those who made the shoes and those who designed them.  They, as much as the wearers of the shoes, were present as well.  I couldn't read the notes, as they were all in Japanese, but I suspect they add to the piece.

Verdict: There's plenty of time to see this installation when you're next in the Sackler for a show.  Take a few minutes to walk around and see this intriguing piece.

An unexpected display

On my way to see "Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota" at the Sackler, I saw a sign in the Haupt Garden directing me to see "Paradise in a Pot,"  a collection of tropical plants.  Following the sign's suggestion, I walked around and found an array of tropical plants, many of them unfamiliar to me, at the back of the garden.  They will be moved to the Smithsonian's greenhouse in Suitland in the near future; I'm guessing as soon as the weather turns colder.  "Limited time only" was the warning on the sign.  I didn't realize the Smithsonian had a greenhouse, but they do.  It serves as a production facility for plants that are displayed in the museums, and as the home of the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection.  I was reminded once again that the museum exhibits that you see on the Mall are only a fraction of what the Smithsonian really owns.

Verdict: I can't tell you when the plants will retreat to their winter quarters, but if you happen to be in the Haupt Garden before it's really fall, have a look.

Portraiture Now: Staging the Self

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through April 12, 2015

"Portraiture Now" is the National Portrait Gallery's series featuring the works of 21st century artists.  Strolling through the gallery, you might think that the collection consists entirely of oil paintings of dead people, most of whom are rich, male and of European descent.  "Portraiture Now" shows that portrait artists can be from diverse backgrounds, depict people from every walk of life and use abstraction as well as realism in their work.

"Staging the Self" is the ninth installment of this series.  I've seen several, although not all of the offerings, and they're always interesting.  You may like or dislike what you see, but it's not a run of the mill show.

"Staging the Self" focuses on six Latino artists, who work in a variety of media: photography, sculpture, mixed media and painting.  The notes on the website will tell you that they have similarities, but I didn't really see it.  Each seems utterly different than the others.  I don't mind the lack of an overall theme; I simply viewed it as a opportunity to see the works of six different artists.

My feelings about the show are, like the media, mixed.  Some I liked, and others I didn't.  Carlee Fernandez is a sculptor, but uses photography as well.  I think of her as "the bear girl," because in several photos she appears in parts of a bear suit.  In one, she's topless, wearing only the back of the suit.  In another, she wears only the top of the suit.  If it sounds odd, well, that's because it is.  She was featured at an exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art, a museum I visited many years ago.  If there's a better collection of ridiculous art (things that make you think, "a fool and his money are soon parted") out there, I don't want to see it.  This makes it seems as if I didn't like Fernandez' work, and that's not actually true.  It's unusual, but her photography is very good.  She took a picture of herself dressed as her father and paired that with a photograph of her father - again, weird, but intriguing.

Fernandez isn't the only one to contemplate her relationship with her father; Maria Martinez-Canas takes a photograph of herself and a photograph of her father and overlays them.  As you walk around the room, you start out with a photo that's 90% her father and 10% her.  Gradually, the percentages are reversed, and you end with a photo that's 90% her and 10% her father.  Really interesting - more so, I think, than if it had been a father-son or mother-daughter pairing.

Speaking of mothers and daughters, Karen Miranda Rivadaneira uses photography to recreate memories of her childhood.  Two of them stood out, but not in a good way.  One is of a old woman (possibly her grandmother) nude, being bathed as the artists looks on.  One cannot help but wonder if grandma (who seems a bit removed from reality) knows that a nude photo of her is on display in a public museum?  One fears she might not approve.  Another is of her with her mother, lying in bed.  One of her mother's breasts is hanging out of her shirt.  I suppose it's meant to suggest breast-feeding, but it was hard to concentrate on the artistry of the image with Mom's huge breast dominating the picture.  At least Mom is clearly cognizant of what's going on and presumably gave her permission for this image to be displayed.

Verdict: Setting aside museum space specifically for contemporary artists is an idea I applaud.  Portraiture is not only about showing the "great men" of the past, but also about artistic expression in the present.  This is a hit or miss show, but worth it for the Martinez-Canas photos alone.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sculptures by Paul Manship

Where: Museum of American Art

When: through early 2015

I'd never heard of Paul Manship before I saw this small display of his sculptures, but I'm a big fan now.  His work was inspired by mythological and symbolic figures, and those are very fine. 

For my money, however, the stars of the show are the animal sculptures.  "Group of Bears" especially, took my fancy.  I was reminded of Inuit art I've seen - it had the same love of nature inherent in the work.  "Group of Deer" was also appealing, as were the gates he did for the Bronx Zoo.  They have an "Arts and Crafts" feel to them, which I like very much.

Manship had a close relationship with the museum.  He served on its board of directors from 1932 - 1964 and was chairman of the board from 1945 onwards.  When he stepped down in 1964, he made a gift of many of his works to the museum, which is now a rich repository of all things Manship.

Verdict: I recommend this small display - I'm only sorry they're taking it down in the new year.

Barbara Kruger: Belief + Doubt

Where:  Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through December 2014

I've seen this installation many times in visits to other exhibits at the Hirshhorn since it was put up in August of 2012.  As you can see from the picture, much of the wording is so gigantic, you can't help but see it.  I've enjoyed reading the thought-provoking questions and statements over the past two years (I can't believe it's been up that long!) and will miss them when they're taken down.  I especially like the fact that many of the sentiments against consumerism continue on the floor of the gift shop.  Art is good; ironic art is even better.

My only criticism, and I didn't even realize that this was true until I made a point of reading everything, is that the words are so large that it's hard to read them close up.  Because of where it's placed (on and around the escalators), you can't really stand back to see the words.  I do like this placement, as it means you can't miss the message, but at the same time, it's awkward to read.

Verdict: The next time you're at the Hirshhorn, take a few minutes to read these giant words - love it or hate it, it's impossible to ignore.