Saturday, February 28, 2015

Chinese Influences on Japanese Art

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through June 14, 2015

There are two shows currently on at the Freer that highlight the Chinese influences on Japanese art. One is entitled "Oribe Ware: Color and Pattern Come to Japanese Ceramics" and the other is "Zen, Tea, and Chinese art in Medieval Japan." The display of Oribe Ware is in the little Gallery 6A, just off Gallery 6, and the display of art related to tea is in Galleries 6 &7, making it easy to see both in one lunch hour.

I confess, I'm at a loss to understand the Japanese fascination with tea. I like a nice cup of Twining's as much as the next person, but I don't make a religion out of it. As I knew from my visit to the Sackler to see Chigusa, the Japanese do make quite a ritual out of tea-drinking, which means they have some very fine items to store, display and consume tea. The rise of both Zen Buddhism and tea presentation coincided with greater contact with China, so the theory is that China may have been responsible for bringing these things, that we now think of as inherently Japanese, to Japan in the first place.

However the phenomenon started, Japanese tea ceramics are well worth seeing. There was a tea caddy and tea bowl that I liked very much - it's amazing to me that things created in the early 1600s are still around today, and looking as if you could use them.

It's not all ceramics on display, though. I also very much liked the painting "White Heron on a Snowy Willow." The delicacy of the bird's feathers caught my eye, even though the predominant color is white (and yes, I know white is not a color). And who could resist the painting of "Xianzi Catches a Shrimp"? The Buddhist master was said to have achieved enlightenment while consuming the crustacean, and considering the deliciousness of shrimp, who can doubt it?

Verdict: If you like Japanese art or the ritual of the tea presentation, make sure to see this show. And at this time of the year, when it seems as if winter is never-ending, who couldn't use a trip to the Freer?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Looking at the Loot from the Corcoran

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through May 3, 2015

Art lovers in the Washington DC area are well aware of the events surrounding the closure of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the acquisition by the National Gallery of their collection.  For those of you not familiar with this saga, I would direct you to the Washington Post's coverage of the decision to close, the litigation surrounding this decision and the final disposal of the building, the art school and the works of art.  All you need to know for the purposes of this blog post is that there used to be an art museum in DC called the Corcoran; it has closed due to financial difficulties, and the National Gallery of Art has obtained the collection.

The Gallery has spent an enormous amount of time and energy in evaluating the works, and has added some items to its collection already.  When the full evaluation process is complete, more items will come to the Gallery and others will be given to other institutions in the local area.

Visitors currently have an opportunity to see some of the lovely items obtained from the Corcoran in two small shows currently up at the National Gallery.  One, on the ground floor, highlights works on paper created between 1860 and 1990; the other, on the main floor, features American masterworks from 1815 - 1940.

There are works I liked very much in both shows, which are easily managed in one lunch hour.  The works on paper includes the wonderful Homer piece pictured here - he's not all depressing seascapes and dead fish.  Here you feel you're out on a lake enjoying a summer day, a welcome thought as DC's temperatures plunge into the single digits.  There's also a Calder, which looks mobile-esque, even though it's a drawing.  I was also drawn (no pun intended) to Sol Lewitt's "Bands of Lines in Four Directions."  Good color in that, I thought.

Where the works on paper feature small pieces, the masterworks show has some quite large items.  Not just the Niagara painting pictured above (note: a reproduction really doesn't do it justice), but a Samuel Morse painting of the House of Representatives and Hiram Powers' Greek Slave sculpture.  She's placed in the middle of the first room, but I must say, I prefer her position by the staircase in the Corcoran.

It was fun for me to see things I'd first glimpsed on my tour of the Corcoran last fall, but it made me realize how melancholy those who loved that museum must be to see these items go elsewhere.  I suppose they can take solace in knowing that the works are staying in DC, and will be well cared for and (I'm assuming) on display.  As for myself, I'm quite eager to know what will happen to the Yinka Shonibare piece I saw there on my visit.  The National Gallery has decided to take it, but I don't know where exactly it will go.  Perhaps to the newly renovated East Building?

Verdict: The Corcoran's loss is the National Gallery's gain - come see some of what they've carted off.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Artists at Work

Where: The Ripley Center

When: through May 1, 2015

It's been a while since I've been to the Ripley to see a show, and I've missed going.  You get a workout walking up and down the steps to the exhibit area, and there's always the fun of walking into this little building and entering a huge subterranean expanse.

This show is in the Concourse, just like the other shows I've seen here recently.  I couldn't remember when I last saw something in the International Gallery, so I looked it up - it's been over two years.  I don't know why they've not had anything in there: budget cuts, repair, renovation, no big shows?  It's not the most glamorous space, but I miss it nonetheless.

For now, this display is the fourth exhibit of artworks by people who work at the Smithsonian.  They draw entries from full-time employees, interns, volunteers, retirees, anyone who works (or worked) there.  Lest you think this is some display of poor items put up out of charity, know that this is a juried art show and that only about 1/3 of the entries make it into this exhibit.

I liked Sherry Winkelman's quilt very much.  It's a design that's meant to represent the data exchange between the archives where she works and the scientists who use it.  She turned her job description into art (and a lovely quilt).

The wall notes tell you something about the artists and their jobs.  Ann Gordon, who volunteers at the Museum of American Art, offered this quote: "Looking at reproductions is not as informative as being with the real thing."  Very true, and something I've experienced many times when I see an actual piece that I've seen reproduced before.  No matter how good the photograph, nothing beats the real thing.

Robyn Johnson-Ross created a flash animation of items from the Luce Center.  She's made the folk art displayed there come to life.  True, I wish she had incorporated the tinfoil sculpture that I love so much into her film, but that's a small complaint.

Verdict: I'm always inspired by the hidden talents of those who work for the Smithsonian.  As if running these wonderful museums and research centers weren't enough, they're artists as well.  Take time to travel underground and see this small show.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity

Where: National Air and Space Museum

When: through June 8, 2015

It's one thing to get into a rocket and go into outer space; it's another to leave your rocket and really go into outer space.  This show is about the latter trip, which is described as "spacefaring" and more like swimming than walking.  You can see lots of equipment, from the early days of space travel to modern day suits.

It's a journey that has its dangers.  As the wall notes remind visitors, the human body is not designed to be in space.  You need a source of oxygen and a tether to the ship, plus space is both terribly cold and gets very direct sunlight, so astronauts need thick gloves to protect their hands.  The problem with thick gloves is that they don't allow very much movement of the fingers, which is usually necessary for whatever work takes the crew out of the ship.

At first, astronauts could only be outside of the ship for minutes at a time.  Now, they can be out for hours, conducting experiments, repairing equipment, and enjoying the view.

This show is in the "Flight and the Arts" room on the 2nd floor, and in addition to many photographs, there are also several paintings of EVA (extra-vehicular activity, which I can't help but think sounds like something you'd put on a college application).  I was happy to see an Alan Bean among the offerings; I saw a show of his work here several years ago.

Verdict: Air and Space was fairly empty last week when I stopped by.  I suppose this is a lull, between family trips at the holidays and school trips in the Spring.  If you're in the area, you might want to come now.  Also, the Spirit of St. Louis is currently sitting on the floor by the Mall entrance door, so you can have a much better look than usual.

Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips

Where: Sackler Gallery of Art

When: through June 7, 2015

Wendell Phillips was a real-life Indiana Jones, making fabulous discoveries about ancient civilizations.  The Sackler describes him as a "dashing paleontologist," and how many of those do you get to meet on your lunch hour?

He and a group of archeologists and other researchers set off for Yemen in 1950 and made some wonderful discoveries there, adding to our store of knowledge about the people who lived there thousands of years ago.  When he tried to do some digging further north, political unrest forced him to abandon his work.  Literally, it sounds as if his group had to make a run for it, leaving all their tools behind.

In this relatively small, but spaciously designed display, you see his group's equipment, as well as some of their finds.  What most appealed to me was a funerary statue nicknamed Miriam.  Her face is so lifelike, you'd swear the ancient artist captured the spirit of a real person.

Recently, Phillips' sister, Merilyn Hodgson, returned to the Awan Temple, where Phillips' group had to abandon their excavations, to carry on his work.  I'm glad that his work will go on; perhaps 20 years from now, I'll be writing about another show of what's been discovered there.

Verdict: If you like ancient civilizations or archeology, this is worth a trip to the Sackler.

Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through May 3, 2015

I was a bit relieved to read the wall notes about Piero di Cosimo and find out that he's been so overshadowed by his contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, that very few people are familiar with his work.  I'd been feeling a bit embarrassed that I'd never heard of the man before reading about this show, but now I don't feel so bad!  I might not have the knowledge of the art world that a collector or art scholar would, but I don't know any less than the average person.

Cosimo's works are an intriguing combination of realistic human figures and allegorical animals and objects, in a wide array of settings.  You might see a mythological subject or a religious painting, a damsel threatened by a sea monster or two saints meeting.  His human faces are full of expression - they look like real people, so you might expect that they would be placed in a realistic background.  Not always so, they might be surrounded by unusual (or wholly imaginary) animals or by objects that clearly had some meaning for him, but what?

Many of his works feature tools, even where you wouldn't expect to find them.  Is that a nod to the fact that painting is hard work?  Or an attempt to appeal to or recognize those who work for a living?  I suppose we'll never know, but it's fun to speculate.

I was amused to see a painting of St. Nicholas ordering the destruction of a tree used in pagan worship.  One doesn't think of good old Santa Claus exhibiting anti-Christmas Tree behavior!  I realize this is a frivolous interpretation, but it made me smile.

The show is good size, so allow time to wander around.  It's set up in a circle, which I don't know that I've seen before here, so you'll wind up back in the second room.  If you see the painting with the giraffe twice, you'll know you've been all the way around.

Verdict: Worth a trip - the paintings repay close attention - the allegory is in the details.