Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through March 1, 2015

In the East wing of the 2nd floor, a space is reserved for exhibits from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.  Over the past several years, they have put up about half a dozen different shows, and each has been excellent.  I don't mean good, or interesting or worth the trip; I mean excellent - a cut above the ordinary show.  If this is the caliber of display we can expect when the NMAAHC opens in 2016, we are in for a real treat.  I wish I knew the names of the curators of these shows so I could compliment them by name - whoever you are, you're doing great work.

The current show is an exhibit of murals by Hale Woodruff, a 20th century African American artist.  The colors are wonderful, and each work (there are six in total) is full of action.  There's a sinuous quality to his brushstrokes that gives the pieces a sense of power and strength, and they are large enough that you feel part of the action, even just standing and looking.

This is most true of the first piece, pictured here, The Mutiny, which is a painting of the takeover of The Amistad by the Africans aboard.  Brute force is depicted, not just in the men fighting, but in the waves in the background and the sugarcane that litters the deck.  Woodruff shows the rage of the mutineers, fighting for their freedom from bondage and the terror of the crew, fighting for their lives.  It's a powerful work, both in the subject matter and in the technique used to bring it to life.

The other two painting in the Amistad group are here, along with the three works that make up the "Founding" series; murals depicting the origins of Talladega College.  The vivid color scheme, the sensitive expressions of the principal characters, the sense of action, of lots going on, are present in all of the works.

In addition, others items useful in interpreting the main works and Woodruff's life and work are also on display.  One of them is a Life magazine article, featuring a picture of Woodruff taken by Eliot Elisofon, the subject of a show at the Museum of African Art not long ago.

The curators of this space set a high bar, and they've met it yet again.

Verdict: A very fine exhibit - do not miss.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Day in the Life: Artists' Diaries from the Archives of American Art

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through February 28, 2015

I've been to many of these little shows from the Archives of American Art, and I'm starting to wonder if perhaps the way they decorate the room is the best part of the display?  The archivists, or whoever is putting these up, transform the space, so that from one exhibit to the next, you wouldn't even realize you were in the same room.  The colors, the designs on the walls - it's all very well done and very interesting.  I see the title of the new show, and I think, "What will the room look like this time?"

One wonders, though, if this is the response the sponsors of the show want.  Would they perhaps be dismayed that I'm coming more for the style than for the substance?  Or are they happy someone's stopping by, regardless of the reason?  I won't say I'm the only person who looks at these, as there's usually at least one other person in the room with me when I visit, but I will say it's never been crowded.

Archival documents are usually not block-buster items.  Setting aside the founding documents at the National Archives, mostly archives are records of an institution - important, yes, but not exciting.  This archives is slightly different, in that it's composed of records created by and about American art, which, I grant you, is inherently more interesting than records about a widget factory.  Still, though, these are records, and they lack drama.

The current offering is about artists' diaries.  Some of them are illustrated, which is nice, and some of them are of an unusual shape - like the one pictured here, which is a huge set of little tablets.  Otherwise, though, they're diaries, and unless you're going to sit down with one and read it cover to cover, developing an interest in the author's family and friends, it's hard to find them terribly enthralling.

Plus, there's the voyeur aspect of reading that which was not meant for me to read.  In fact, the wall display this time includes a quote from Blanche Lazzell, a printmaker, who wrote in her diary that it was intended for no one's eyes but her own, and she hoped it would be burnt upon her death.  Apparently, whoever had charge of her effects didn't follow her wishes.  It made me think of the controversies over the "right to be forgotten," and the lack of privacy in electronic communications.  No matter the technology, we want to have control over how we present ourselves to the world, and we don't always get it.

One of the offerings on display was a "video diary" by Joe Hollier, an artist, filmmaker and animator.  No worries about an invasion of privacy here, but is this really a diary?  It's described as being non-chronological, and isn't that the essence of a diary?  Food for thought...

Verdict: If you're interested in the lives of artists outside of their art, stop by and have a look.  Otherwise, I think you can give this a miss.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art

Where: American Art Museum

When: through February 22, 2015

It's funny how some times I'll have expectations for a show, that it will be good, or bad, or will feature certain types of art.  I thought this would be Audubon prints and large scale paintings from the 1800s, but I could not have been more wrong.  The vast majority of the works in this show are modern - in some cases, very modern.  There's a lot that's wild and a lot that's weird and an enormous amount to like. The wall notes at the beginning of the show describe birds as "winged wonders that surround us daily," and I think winged wonders is a great way to describe this show.

My favorite artist on display is Fred Tomaselli.  The colors he uses are wonderful, and his work has a psychedelic quality to it.  In addition to paint, he uses leaves from his own garden in his work, which provide a touch of realism amidst the trippiness of his efforts.  I found myself thinking that, if I owned one of his paintings, I could look at it a very long time before I would stop finding elements I hadn't noticed before.

Of course, what catches the eye immediately is the giant sculptures (if sculpture is the right word, and I'm not sure that it is, but I can't come up with any other word that's better) by Petah Coyne.  They're very tall, with taxidermied birds and squirrels.  They look vaguely like trees, but also vaguely like big piles of flowers - you really have to see them to appreciate them.

Then there's Laurel Roth Hope's birds, made of human adornments - earrings, barrettes and fake fingernails.  Somehow, using these unlikely materials, she manages to convey the movement of the birds; you almost expect them to rise up and fly away.  And there's a set of extinct birds, most of the ones in the Lost Bird Project.  They're pigeon mannequins, with sweaters knitted in a pattern showing their coloring - a reminder to appreciate the wonders of nature before they vanish forever.

Finally, I must mention the mural outside the exhibit space.  It's a recreation of the end papers in Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds.  I can remember my parents using this book frequently to identify birds in our backyard when I was a child, and the mural brought it all back to me.  It's great to have a personal connection to art, to have it remind you of a part of your life you had forgotten.

Verdict: This is the best show I've seen in a long time, and I recommend it highly.

El Greco in the National Gallery of Art and Washington-Area Collections: A 400th Anniversary Celebration

Where: National Gallery of Art

When:  through February 16, 2015

This year is the 400th anniversary of El Greco's death, and the National Gallery has decided to mark the occasion by displaying several of their own El Greco paintings, along with three from other local collections.

The exhibit takes up only one room, so I had plenty of time to examine each work in detail.  I've decided that El Greco is a sort of bridge between the Mannerist artists of the 1500s and the abstract painters of the 20th century, especially Picasso.  His elongated figures, who often seem to be in tortured poses, remind me of the exaggerated people of the Mannerists, but also of Picasso's early work.  It's not that El Greco's figures are completely abstract, but they're not completely realistic either.

If you like religious art, you'll find much to enjoy here; he lived during the Counter-Reformation in Spain, and his work reflects the religious fervor of the times.

Verdict: An interesting small show, nothing like as large as the El Greco retrospective I remember from 1982.  You can see this and the lovely holiday decorations in the Rotunda in a lunch hour.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Richard Estes' Realism

Where: American Art Museum

When: through February 8, 2015

It's easy to get so caught up in the realism of Richard Estes' work that you miss the artistry in his pieces.  You could easily mistake almost every painting for a photograph - they're that crisp and detailed and "real" looking.  Once you've marveled at how paint can look so much like toner, however, look again and see what else is going on.

In every piece, you can see the theme of repetition and multiplicity.  Whether it's the arches in his Roman bridge, the stacks of books in the National Gallery of Art library or the telephone booths outside a diner (pictured here), you see the same element repeated over and over again.  In one piece, he deliberately repeats his painting through the use of a mirror effect.  As much as we want to believe that we are unique individuals (special little snow flakes, as I like to say), Estes shows us that the world in which we live is made up of similar, if not identical, pieces.

Another theme that you see in many of his works is that of travel, especially travel over water.  He incorporates bridges as well as boats, showing people moving from one side of the water to the other.  Some of them are commuters on their way to work; others are on vacation, headed for an island destination.  Movement, no matter the purpose, is what he portrays - both the movement of the water and of the people on the water.

Motion and multiplicity are what you see, if you can stop marveling at his technique long enough to appreciate them.

Verdict: The show is well laid out, in a large space.  Because there are only a few paintings in each area, you can make your way through quickly, leaving you time to stop and admire the craftsmanship.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

First 3-D Printed Presidential Life Mask and Bust

Where: Smithsonian Castle

When: through December 31, 2014

This is a great time of year to visit the Castle - it's decorated for the holidays with a big tree and other greenery, festive without being overwhelming.   Another reason to wander over is to see a bust and life mask of President Obama - the first president to have these made using 3-D printing technology.

Staff from the National Portrait Gallery used some really cutting-edge tools to scan the President for the bust and life mask - both banks of LED lights and handheld devices.  The results are on display this month at the far end of the Castle, where the exhibit of items from various Smithsonian museums are located.

Along with President Obama, two 3-D printed versions of the life masks of President Lincoln are also on display.  When you think about how uncomfortable and time-consuming it must have been in the 1800s to have plaster put all over your face to create a life mask, you realize that the 21st century's version - a few seconds sitting in a chair - is a vast improvement.

The idea is that the 3-D printer creates an objective picture of reality, as opposed to paintings or sculptures, which are inherently non-objective.  Of course, the same case has been made for photography, and I've seen more than one exhibit demonstrating that the camera certainly does lie.  Whether the same is true of the 3-D printer, I think we'll have to wait to see.

If you're interested in learning more about the process of making the images, see this short video at the Smithsonian Magazine website:

Verdict: If you're heading over to the Castle, make sure to have a look.  I'm sure this technology will be commonplace some day, but it's still pretty exciting today.