Friday, April 24, 2015

Clash of Cultures

Where: American Indian Museum

When: through December 29, 2015

I confess before I went to this exhibit, I'd never heard of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862; I thought the only war going on that year was the Civil War.  On the contrary, another conflict took place, far from the Mason-Dixon line.

Students from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota produced this exhibit as part of a class on the war.  It consists of banners with reproductions of maps and photographs and other information about Dakota culture, their early interactions with white Americans and the deterioration of the relationship that led to an attack by Dakota akicitas (warriors).  Although initially overpowered by the Dakota forces, the U.S. Army's superior military might turned the tide against them.  Eventually, the Dakota people were driven from Minnesota entirely.

The story is a sad one; a tale of two incompatible worldviews, that ended with the mightier force victorious.  The Dakota Way of Being emphasizes sharing among family groups, complex ties between and among families and a general sense of connectedness with not only other human beings but with nature and the land.  Contrast this with industrial capitalism as a way of organizing society, and you can see that conflict is inevitable.

When large numbers of white settlers came into Minnesota, promises to the Dakota began to be broken, treaties were signed and then ignored, and the native people were cheated by those more sophisticated in their business dealings.  I found myself reminded of payday lenders, preying on the most vulnerable members of society, making huge profits from the financial straits of those less fortunate.

When the Dakota had borne all they could bear, they attacked the white settlers near New Ulm (I once had a roommate from there, so I'd heard of the town before).  Hundreds died and thousands were displaced.  38 Dakota akicitas were hung, the largest mass execution in U.S. history, after what were basically show trials.  The remaining members of the tribe, most of them women, children and the elderly, were forcibly removed from Minnesota and sent to reservations in South Dakota and Nebraska.  By May 1863, no Dakota were left in the state.

I wish there would have been a section of the display that related the thoughts of the students in the class who prepared this display.  How much did they know about this incident before taking the class?  How did their perceptions of U.S. history and of the relationships between the native tribes and the U.S. government change as a result of their studies?

It also would have been interesting to know what the descendants of the relocated Dakota are doing now.  Are they still on these reservations?  Have they integrated into white society?  Have stories about this war been passed down through the generations?

Verdict: A very informative display, especially when you consider that this was done by students, not by curators.  Not a "fun" exhibit by any means, but certainly one that is thought-provoking.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Visitors at American Art

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through August 16, 2015

Tucked away in a corner, surrounding the Adams Memorial, is an exhibit of 19 paintings lent by Thelma and Melvin Lenkin that will be on display for about four months.  Rather than being put in a separate room or display area, they've been integrated into the museum's collection of 19th century art.

There are no introductory wall notes to tell you anything about the Lenkins or their collection; I just walked around until I saw some pieces with a notation that they were lent by the Lenkins, counted up 19 items and decided I'd found the exhibit.  I'm sure there's some valid curatorial basis for this decision, but I must say, it's an odd way to display these works of art.  Many of them are excellent, and apparently, some of them have never been on public display before.  Why not make them easier to find?

Once you do hunt them out, you'll be rewarded for your efforts with some fine pieces.  An artist previously unknown to me, Everett Shin, could be mistaken for Degas.  His dancer paintings have the same backstage angle and play of light on the performers' faces.  I also saw a George Bellows work of a tennis tournament in Newport - he's not all Ashcan boxers!

Perhaps my favorite piece was by John Singer Sargent.  Entitled "Spanish Gypsy Dancer,"  it reminded me strongly of his work "El Jaleo" which I saw at the Gardener museum in Boston several years ago.  The dancer's attitude and her arm gestures were strikingly similar I noted in the little blank book I bring with me on my visit to museums.  Imagine my satisfaction at reading those same ideas on the piece's wall notes.  I'm getting the hang of this art criticism business!

Verdict: Take the time to find this collection of very good paintings before they return to private hands.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

What's New, Portrait Gallery?

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through November 11, 2015

In the hallway leading from the G Street entrance, there's an exhibit of the Gallery's latest acquisitions.  It's what I call a continuous exhibit, meaning that it's up for a set period of time, then a new version goes up.  This collection of recent acquisitions is up for a year and will then be taken down and replaced by a new set of recent acquisitions.

The museum has a tricky job in choosing new items: how do you know if a person who is famous now will be famous 100 years from now?  You don't want to miss out on a great portrait, but you also don't want a museum full of flashes in the pan.  The number one priority in choosing a piece is the sitter's impact on American history.  Among the other considerations is the quality of the artwork, obviously.  A committee meets and decides what to add and what to pass on acquiring; it's the sort of activity that sounds like fun, but is probably less enjoyable than it appears.  I can only image there's the usual squabbling and bickering that goes on in every committee...

Whatever the circumstances, the museum has added some intriguing items to its holdings, some quite recent, like the Maya Angelou piece pictured here and some quite old, like a painting of George Washington, painted not long after his death.

I think my favorite piece was the Bella Abzug portrait; I fear she's being forgotten as time passes, but seeing her big hat made me smile.

Verdict: Easily managed in a lunch hour - you could even add this on to a visit to another small show.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

I'd Go All the Way to Hell to See a Yinka Shonibare

Where: African Art Museum

When: through August 2, 2015

The new show at African Art has literally taken over the entire museum.  It starts in the pavilion, continues on the first floor, proceeds down the stairwells and ends on the third floor.  In fact, it bursts through the museum walls on the third floor and actually ends in the International Gallery of the Ripley Center.

So what's all the fuss about?  What topic can command so much floor space?  What can take your mind off the Cosby exhibit on the 2nd floor?  It's "The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists," and by the time you've wandered through the many rooms and landings, you'll feel as if you've been on quite a journey.

When I saw the entry for this show on the Smithsonian website, my first thought was, "Contemporary African artists?  Does that mean Yinka Shonibare will have a piece?"  Imagine my delight to find that he is, in fact, one of the artists on display.  I've been waiting for weeks for the show to open, and I went rushing right over on opening day, eager to see another of his pieces.

The exhibit begins in the pavilion with an introduction to the show; there's a video and an invitation to record your own writings in the entryway.  The ball really gets rolling, however, on the 1st floor, with the "Heaven" section.  I have to say, there is some seriously weird stuff in this show.  I'd look at a piece and think, "What IS that?"  Then I'd turn to the title and find myself none the wiser.  Perhaps the most peculiar thing (and that's saying something) in this section is entitled "Frontier with Church" by Jane Alexander.  It's a large installation with numerous figures, many of whom reminded me strongly of the mouse-like characters of the Jews in Maus.  Bizarre.

There was also a piece composed of prayer rugs on the floor, each with a pair of glittery women's shoes standing on it.  Why?  What is this supposed to mean?  Is this a commentary on the place of women in Islam?  Or does it have something to do with fashion and the toll it takes on women's bodies?  Or what?

Moving on from heaven, we proceed to "Purgatory."  It begins on the first floor, flows down the stairwells and landings and ends on the third floor.  It's a bit tricky to navigate; I was distracted from the art by trying to make sure I'd seen everything.  My favorite piece was on one of the landings, "Refrigerium" by Dimitri Fogboboun.  It's a wooden confessional.  You can open up the doors to the right and left to see into the piece; on the left side, there are nails pointing up out of the places where you would put your knees and elbows in a real confessional.  They spell out Lord Have Mercy.  On the right side, there's a picture of Jesus with glowing eyes and a broom hanging up, which made me think of self-flagellation.   Perhaps the message is a bit heavy-handed, but I liked it all the same.

On the third floor, we reach "Hell."  On the first day I went, I was filled with anticipation.  I'd looked carefully through "Heaven" and "Purgatory" to find the Shonibare, but no luck.  I knew then I'd need to go to "Hell" to see his work, and I was willing to do it.  I was about to enter the first room, when the security guard stopped me and said, "Sorry ma'am, it's still closed."  Closed!?!  What?  I chatted with the guard for a few minutes, explaining that Shonibare is my favorite artist.  "This is the definition of hell for me," I said.  "Being so close to seeing a Yinka Shonibare, but not actually able to see it."  Dejected, I left the museum.  Two days later, however, I was back, and this time "Hell" was open for business.

I gathered from the wall notes that Hell is based on what you fear, and that makes sense.  When you're paralyzed by fear and doubt, that is a kind of hell.  You're not happy, as you would be in heaven and you're not on a journey to a better place, as purgatory represents.  You're stuck in a miserable situation, with no way out.  The rooms are dark, so it's sometimes a bit difficult to make out the works, but one thing is clear: more weirdness abounds.  Probably the oddest work was a big rubber thing - I can't really be more descriptive.  It's vaguely unsettling, but why, I don't know.

The Yinka Shonibare piece is entitled "How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (Gentlemen)."  It's two of his signature headless mannequins, each pointing a revolver at the other.  The great thing about the placement of the piece is that I could get right up close to it.  The hands of the mannequins are easy to see, and they're so lifelike - you'd swear they were real people.  His work is powerful, and this one, that I'm interpreting as a statement on the politics of mutual destruction, makes you realize that hell is the waste of human energy on killing, instead of working together to solve problems.  The man is a genius, and this piece is a great example of that.

Verdict: This takes more than a lunch hour to fully explore, but is worth a look.  There's nothing straightforward in this show, but it is thought-provoking.

Timely Japanese Screens at the Freer

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through September 7, 2015

If the crowds around the Tidal Basin are a bit too much for you at this time of the year, you can get a cherry blossom fix at the Freer (although it was plenty busy yesterday when I was there).  This exhibit of Japanese screens features two with cherry blossom motifs.  Perhaps not quite as lovely as being outside in good weather (which we certainly deserve here in the DC area, after our unpleasant winter), but they are charming, even if they are indoors.

The screens combine beauty and practicality, which appeals to me very much.  Not only do they serve to divide rooms, they also bring art into a room at the same time.  You can fold them to make them larger or smaller as needed, and each position makes a different piece of art.

In addition to the cherry blossoms, there are also birds and other flowers represented here - a feast for the eyes.  Add to that a springtime walk to and from the museum, and you have a wonderful way to spend a lunch hour.

Verdict: Another relaxing trip to the Freer, even if the crowds were larger than usual.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Lots of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

If you are a fan of Yasuo Kuniyoshi or, like me, you've never heard of him before, but would like to know more about this major figure in American modernism, head right over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for two exhibits on this Japanese-American artist.

Because the small show put up by the museum's archives closes in July, and the major retrospective in the museum proper closes in August, I went to see the archives exhibit first.  I would recommend this, especially for anyone who, like myself, is unfamiliar with Kuniyoshi and his work.  By seeing the archives show first, you get a sense of him as a man, as an artist and as an activist which will stand you in good stead when you go to the see the big show.

Kuniyoshi was born in Japan, but came to the United States as a teenager and spent the rest of his life here.  He had intended to stay a short while and learn enough English to return to Japan as a teacher.  Instead, instructors at the high school he attended noticed his artistic talent, and he stayed in the United States, becoming a member of artistic circles in New York and Ogunquit, Maine (a lovely small town in the southern-most part of the state that I have been fortunate enough to visit).  Considered one of the most brilliant painters of his era, he was named an "enemy alien" during WWII, and was deprived of his camera (Kuniyoshi was a very talented photographer, as well as a painter and printmaker), his radio and his binoculars.  He was limited in his movements and under the eye of the U.S. government for the duration of the war.

This feeling of alienation, of being outside the mainstream, of separateness from society comes though in his works.  Many of his paintings are of circus performers, another group on the outskirts of American society.  The picture above is of a strong woman and a boy, perhaps her son.  Neither of the figures look directly at the viewer; they keep their distance, even while being put on display.

Many of his paintings show pain and alienation; I found myself enjoying the show, but also feeling a sense of sadness as I looked at the pieces.  One of a group entitled "Maine Family," I found reminded me of a Charles Addams drawing, and the Addams family is nothing if not unlike the run-of-the-mill suburban parents and children.

Verdict: Worth spending some time in both shows.  The archives display is very manageable in a lunch hour; you'll have to move quickly to see everything in the big show in a short amount of time.