Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Traveler's Eye: Scenes of Asia

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through May 31, 2015

When I went into this exhibit, I was fearful it would be so large that I'd be rushing through in order to get back to work.  No such thing - each room has only a few items in it, so I was able to make my way along at a leisurely pace.

This show is concerned with pictures of Asia  that are geared towards tourists, either people who would be inspired by the pictures to take a trip, or armchair travelers, who use the paintings or illustrations or photographs as a substitute for actually visiting the places depicted.

Pictures that are widely available of far-off lands end up defining what is worth seeing in those locations - the roads traveled become the roads that others wish to travel, so that they can see the things in person that they've seen reproduced.  I found myself looking at some of the photographs of India on display towards the end of the show and thinking, "I'd like to see that."  It's not just the Victorians who were likely to fall for this kind of propaganda.

Imagine my delight, long time readers, to see several book illustrations by my great favorite Hokusai!  Although these were not part of his Mount Fuji series, I was happy to see them nonetheless.  Whenever I see one of his works, it's like meeting an old friend.  I also very much enjoyed the paintings by Hiroshige of the Tokaido, a road traveled by pilgrims and high-level dignitaries, but generally not by casual tourists.  Depicting scenes from this road allowed those not able to use it to experience it - to see what all the fuss was about.

At the very end of the show is a display of postcards.  Apparently, they are falling out of favor now, as people just take snapshots with their phones, but I always liked them.  When I lived in London during college, I sent lots of postcards back to family members, as I traveled around Europe.  My grandfather told me it was like taking a vacation himself.  Ah well, we must keep up with the times!  As scrolls gave way to books, which gave way to postcards, which are giving way to phones, the important thing is to keep sharing those pictures of one's travels.

Verdict: An interesting and thought-provoking exhibit.  A combination of both traditional and contemporary Asian art, which one does not often see.

Style in Chinese Landscape Painting: The Yuan Dynasty Legacy

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through May 31, 2015

This display is the second in a three-part series on Chinese landscape painting and focuses on the Yuan Dynasty.  This period followed the Song Dynasty, the subject of the series' first part.

One of the things I noticed when visiting this exhibit is the intimacy of Chinese landscape painting.  When you see American landscapes, they're often majestic, epic, awe-inspiring; these are drawn on a much more human scale.  I felt a much deeper connection with the works than I do with gigantic landscapes.  With those, I admire the art and the talent of the artist; the works are certainly breath-taking, but I can relate to Chinese landscapes so much better.

For what I think is the first time in all my trips to the Freer, I saw a piece that the curators had purchased - not a gift of Freer himself.  This was a painting done in the 1940s (so I knew it couldn't have been part of Freer's collection) that's a painstakingly accurate copy of a piece by Zhu Derun.  According to the wall notes, without the original to compare it to, you can't tell it's a copy.

Verdict: If you like Chinese landscapes, have a look.  I'm eager to see what the third installment will contain.

Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through April 26, 2015

There's no better way to beat the winter blues than by visiting this exhibit on orchids at the Natural History Museum.  In odd-numbered years, the show is here; in even-numbered years, it's at the Botanic Gardens, close to the Capitol building.  On a dreary January day this week, I headed off to get a dose of warm, fragrant relief.

Each year, there's a different theme for the display; this year, the focus is on the science of the flowers - how botanists learn more about them, how breeders (if that's the right word) create hybrid flowers to appeal to fanciers and how the flowers are protected for future generations to enjoy.

The Smithsonian has over 8,000 orchid specimens in its greenhouses in Suitland, Md., a part of the Institution you don't get to see.  Of course, you can enjoy the products of their labor at the Smithsonian Gardens on the Mall, but I confess, I'd like to visit the greenhouses and see where it all begins.

There are a large number of different varieties on display; one, Psychopsis Mariposa 'Mountain' is in the shape of a butterfly.  I think my favorite was Oncidopsis Stefan Isler 'Lava Flow' which has a lovely color combination of a dark red and orange.  I overheard one of the orchid experts who are available to answer questions tell another visitor that the orchids are swapped out each week, so you can go back multiple time and always see something new.

Verdict: If you're like me and need a day-brightener this time of year, make sure to see this lovely display.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

In the Library: Recent Acquisitions

Where: National Gallery of Art Library

When: through January 30, 2015

Although the East Building of the National Gallery of Art is presently closed for renovations, the main floor, including the library, is still open.  As regular readers of this blog will know, the library staff puts on small displays in the case in the main reading room on a rotating basis; at present they are highlighting their recent acquisitions.

I suspect that, aside from librarians like myself and those particularly interested in art books, this might be a display that would attract few visitors.  In addition, when I went over, I talked to the guard at the library's entrance, and he told me there had been no publicity surrounding this exhibit.  I'd noticed that it's not listed on the "Current Exhibitions" page of their website.  The only reason I knew about it was because I'd taken a tour of the library last month, and our guide mentioned it.  I'm going to pay special attention from now on to make sure I don't miss a show.  Really, National Gallery, help me out here - don't make it hard for me to find out what's on display!

Quibbling about publicity aside, the display itself is quite nice.  They've collected a wide range of items, some of them quite old, but others as recent as the 20th century.  The books cover multiple subjects within the world of art and are from many different countries.  Two particularly caught my eye.  Linguae vitia & remedia by Antoine de Bourgogne, which translates as "Abuses of language & their remedies."  We think of poor grammar and misuse of words as a modern problem, but since this was published in 1652, it's clearly not.  Ricordo di Venezia by Carlo Naya, published in 1876 is an album of views of Venice - those that visitors on the Grand Tour would want as souvenirs.  I was, of course, reminded of the big exhibit on View Paintings the National Gallery put on several years ago.

Verdict: Worth a look if you're interested in art books, but otherwise, you can give it a miss.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Nasta'liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through May 3, 2015

This small (two-room) show is at the back of the museum, close to the gift shop.  Considering its diminutive size, it takes a while to make your way through it, as there are wall notes for each piece.  Although the focus is on text, in reality it's a show about art.

The exhibit offers examples of the work of four different Persian calligraphers, each with his own particular style.  These masters worked from 1400, when the script was originally developed, until 1600, when it had been transformed into an art form in its own right.

I confess, the subtle differences in technique were lost upon me.  I think the calligraphy is lovely, and it does look something like the bird in flight to which it was compared, but if you showed me several examples and asked me who had written each one, I'd be hard pressed to tell you.

Verdict: Nasta'liq translates as "beautiful writing," and it is that.  If you don't have a particular interest in Iranian history or calligraphy, you can probably skip this.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

2013 Nature's Best Photography: Windland Smith Rice International Awards

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through April 20, 2015

Every year, I look forward to seeing this exhibit of nature photography.  Each piece is absolutely stunning: a combination of top-notch photographs with top of the line printing and framing.  The pictures are so high-quality, you feel as if you are "there," that the birds are flying right toward you, that you are on the mountaintop looking down into the valley, that the bear in this photo is right beside you.   The pieces are quite large, so you feel surrounded by natural beauty as you walk through the room.

In addition to the spectacular photographs, there is a short paragraph next to each picture, providing you with some information on what you're seeing, whether animal or landscape - really helpful if the creature is unusual or the landscape is unfamiliar.  Plus, you get a quote from each photographer, generally a story about how they got the shot or why they've become wildlife photographers.   Two themes emerge from these remarks: one is that it takes incredible patience in order to get these photos, sometimes hours of waiting for just the right shot, and the second is that several of the photographers are hoping that more people will become concerned with wildlife preservation by seeing their work.  One can only hope they're right.

I'm in awe of the talent and endurance of the photographers and of the beauty of our planet.  It's very easy to become overwhelmed by day-to-day life and not take time to appreciate the  wonders of our world.  This exhibit will help you pause and notice, and it's hard to give greater praise to a show than that.

Verdict: If you have any interest at all in nature photography, do not miss this show.

Black Box: Ragnar Kjartansson

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through April 19, 2015

In addition to the big display of video art on the 2nd floor, the Hirshhorn is also showing the latest in their Black Box series.  It's an offering from Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson called S. S. Hangover.

The gist of the video is a small wooden boat going up and down one of the canals in Venice during the 2013 Biennale.  The description of the video makes me think that there's something more going on, but this was all I saw in the 20 minutes or so that I watched it.  The problem is that the video is 243 minutes long.  Yes, 243 minutes - 4 hours.  When I saw that, at first I thought it must be 24.3 minutes, but no, it's 243.  Who is going to sit for four hours in a museum and watch a video?  Even if you wanted to devote that much time (I could take a day off if it mattered that much to me), the seating is not that comfortable, and at some point, I'm going to need to visit the restroom.

I liked what I saw well enough, and I think the division of the screen into two views of the canal is interesting, but I'm not going to sit for four hours to see the whole thing.  I wish that the Hirshhorn would offer a condensed version of it, but I suppose their mission is to offer a full viewing, as you can see clips on YouTube easily enough.

Verdict: If anyone sits through the full four-hour presentation, please let me know!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Portrait of Stephen Colbert

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through April 20, 2015

Attention members of Colbert nation: Stephen is back at the Portrait Gallery!  His new and improved portrait (now with even more Stephens!) is hung over the water fountain between the men's and women's restrooms on the 2nd floor - just outside the Hall of Presidents.

I love that the Smithsonian has gone along with the joke; most of the time, they're a serious institution providing world-class art and historical objects at no charge to the visitor, but every so often, they show they have a sense of humor.

Verdict: If you like Colbert, make sure you stop by to say farewell to his blowhard persona.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Days of Endless Time

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through April 6, 2015

Happy New Year!  To all of you reading this, I wish you the best that 2015 has to offer.  I'm hoping that this year will bring many fantastic shows in D.C. and elsewhere.

The last show I saw in 2014 was the Hirshhorn's video extravaganza, "Days of Endless Time."  Regular readers of this blog know all too well my distaste for the Hirshhorn generally, but I have nothing but praise for their video offerings.  I've seen many wild and weird and wonderful pieces over the years, so you can imagine how much I was anticipating this show of 14(!) videos - like a kid in a candy shop.  The simile is apt; by the time I walked out, I felt as if I'd eaten entirely too much video candy, and needed a course of 19th century landscapes (or whatever the artistic equivalent of Pepto-Bismol might be) to soothe my system.

I liked the presentations; they all had a hypnotic quality to them, as if you could just sit and watch them for hours.  According to the wall notes, they're meant to offer a poetic refuge from the frantic pace of modern life, and they do cause you to slow your pace.  Of course, on a lunchtime excursion, I was able to give each piece little more than a glance.   Two of the videos I'd seen at the Hirshhorn before: Hans Op de Beeck's "Staging Silence" and Douglas Gordon's "Play Dead; Real Time."  The video that held my attention longest was Sigalit Landau's "DeadSee."  It features the artist, nude, floating in a circular arrangement of watermelons in a body of water.  As the fruit turns, the circle spins slowly apart, taking the artist along for the ride.

I also liked "Shadowplay" by Hans-Peter Feldman.  There's nothing complex about this set-up; it's common, every-day objects spinning on several turntables (I think, not sure exactly what they are), with light set up behind them.  The shadows created are thrown on the wall, where the objects are magnified and brought together, almost like a dance.  It sounds odd, but it interesting to watch, and there are comfy chairs in the room, which was a welcome feature.

These videos take up the entire second floor, but, unlike most of these big shows, I didn't feel as if I was on the Bataan Death March.  The lighting is quite low, and many walls have been constructed to keep glare from the screens, so you feel rather as if you're making your way through a labyrinth.

My criticism of the way the show is constructed is that watching so many videos is a bit much all at once, but it's quite hard to step in and watch just one or two, if they're not right at the entrance or exit.  I'd recommend taking this show in moderation, but that's tricky to manage.  Novertheless, I'm going to give it a try over the next several months - when I'm at the Hirshhorn, I'll just wander up to the second floor and dip in here or there.

Verdict: If you like video art, this is a can't miss show.  If you can spread your visit out over two or three sessions, I think you'll be better served than by trying to see everything in one sitting.