Saturday, May 30, 2015

Iran through the eyes of a diaspora photographer

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through September 20, 2015

When I first saw the image for this exhibit (pictured here), I thought perhaps this was the same person whose work I had seen in the African Art Museum a couple of years ago.  I looked up the show and found that I was thinking of Lalla Essaydi, from Morocco.  This is Shirin Neshat, from Iran.  Both of them use writing on women's bodies to make a point about the treatment of women in the Middle East, so I don't feel too bad about my mistake.

Neshat left Iran in the 1970s and has not lived there since.  She did return to the country in the 1990s for a visit, but has not been back since.  I gather that the government is not fond of her work, and it's not entirely safe for her to return.

This exhibit, which is one of the Hirshhorn's 2nd floor monsters that I call Bataan Death March shows, focuses on her works concerning the 1953 ouster of the elected Prime Minister and his replacement with the Shah, the 1979 revolution which lead to the ouster of the Shah, and the 2009 Green Revolution, part of the Arab Spring.

Her photography is more than thought-provoking; it's quite intense.  Her "Women of Allah" series shows women clothed in burqas, frequently with guns.  She overlays her photographs with Persian calligraphy - not religious texts, but contemporary poetry.  One of the difficulties for the Western viewer is that those of us who can't read the text are missing part of the message.  The Hirshhorn does try to overcome this problem by setting up information in the inner ring of the 2nd floor, which includes translations.

The other two photography series are the "Book of Kings" and "Our House is on Fire," both also intense.  I might not be able to get the full message, but I feel like I got quite a bit of it.

In addition to the photographs, there are also several videos in the show, mostly two screens showing parallel or dueling images.  The show was large enough that I didn't linger to see any of them in their entirety, but I think they would repay a full viewing.  They examine the roles of gender in Iran and the oppression of women there.  It's not anything you don't know, but it forces you to confront it head on.

Verdict: A large show; you'd need two lunch hours to really see everything.  Not light-hearted by any stretch of the imagination; you're presented with the ugly truth of modern Iran and you can't look away.

Livin' on Tulsa Time

Apologies for the blogging silence lately.  I spent much of last week in Tulsa, Oklahoma at my nephew's high school graduation.  Big congratulations to him, and I'm looking forward to seeing him in Baltimore (he's going to Johns Hopkins) in August.

While in Tulsa, I went to two museums, because what's a trip without museums?  The Philbrook is a lovely home converted into an art museum; it has a nice selection of American art, as well as offerings from Europe, Asia and Africa.  In the basement is an interesting collection of Native American pottery.

The grounds are breathtaking - worth a visit all on their own.  The water features are particularly fine.  The website describes it as "a little bit of Tuscany in Tulsa," and that might be a bit over-stating it, but it was certainly the prettiest spot I saw on my trip.

We also went to the Woody Guthrie Center in the Brady Arts District, a part of downtown Tulsa. 

The museum is fairly small, so you could see most of its exhibits in a lunch hour.  We didn't have much longer than that for our tour, as we arrived late in the day.  In addition to telling the story of Guthrie's life through lots of interactive displays and artifacts, they also have a special exhibit space.  When we were there, it was a show about the Beatles.

The Woody Guthrie archives is also located here, where those wishing to study Guthrie have access to original materials in addition to what's on display.  There is also performance space here; while we were visiting, it appeared that a school group was getting some musical instruction.

If you are ever in Tulsa, I recommend these two destination, as well as the Gilcrease Museum (which I didn't visit on this trip, but saw on a previous trip).

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Lots of Photography

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: In Light of the Past runs through July 26; The Memory of Time runs through September 13

On May 3, two photography shows opened at the National Gallery of Art.  One, In Light of the Past, is in honor of the 25th anniversary of the museum's photography collection (yes, 1990 is 25 years ago, I can't believe it either); the other, The Memory of Time is a survey of pieces collected with Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund.  I liked both of these shows, and both of them are worth your time, but if push comes to shove, In Light of the Past is a good show, and The Memory of Time is a great one.

Light is a historical survey of photography from the early 1840s to the late 1970s.  The first piece you see is the one pictured here - a still life by Roger Fenton, establishing the genre's connection to painting.  The dark color chosen for the walls also makes you feel as if you're looking at a room of Old Master pieces.  My favorite works in the first two rooms were some photographs of the American West; I was reminded of a show I saw at American Art on this topic and how it made me want to travel there.

One of the most interesting things in this exhibit is how the look and feel of it changes between the second room and the third.  It made me realize that I don't think I've ever been to a show before where the color scheme is one thing to start and another to finish.  It makes sense, since the third and fourth rooms contain more modern art, and the light walls and different font for the wall notes goes along with that.

The other great thing about this show is that I saw some "familiar faces" on the walls.  Artists or photographs that I'd seen before made me realize how often I come to the National Gallery and how much of each show I do retain in my memory.  Very gratifying, I must say.

Memory is also photography, but a very different show than Light.  This is all modern art; there's nothing older than the early 1990s.  This is truly photography as art, about as far away from the photos of your kid's birthday party as it's possible to get.

In the present day, everything can be shared with everyone, and photography is no longer the last word on "what really happened."  Of course, for those of us who saw the National Gallery's Faking it, we know that photographs have been capable of being manipulated for as long as photography has been around.  Still, now everyone can use Photoshop to create a new record of the past, and a new way of looking at the present.

There was something interesting or intriguing or unexpected in every room of this show, from the ghost-like photos of David Maisel to the "Houses of Parliament, London" (pictured above) by Idris Khan that recall Monet's Parliament paintings.  So much creativity, so many ways of using photographic equipment; I'm hoping to see this show again, just so I can marvel at it all anew.

Verdict: As I said above, both shows are worth your time.  If you can only get to one, see The Memory of Time.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Heavy Metal at the National Gallery

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through July 26, 2015

Before I saw this exhibit, I'd never heard of metalpoint, a drawing technique that began in the Middle Ages and continues to be practiced today.  The National Gallery's website offers this description of the technique:

An artist working in metalpoint uses a sharp, pointed 
instrument (a stylus) with a metal tip to draw on paper, 
parchment, or wood that has been specially coated. As 
the stylus travels across this slightly abrasive ground, a 
small amount of metal is scraped off and remains behind,
 creating a line.

Pieces done in metalpoint have a precision to them that I like very much.  You can see how painstaking the artist has to be to create in this medium, and that's after the ground is prepared.  To see all the work that goes into making a surface that will receive the metal, check out this video from the Gallery's website, which is also playing in the exhibit itself:

I was especially glad to see pieces by Albrecht Durer, with whose work I had become familiar in a National Gallery show from 2013.  His "Dog Resting" is wonderful - you almost expect the animal to rise up when you approach.  The other piece that caught my eye was one by Andrew MacCallum, "Forest of Scots Firs."  It's a landscape, which is unusual for metalpoint.  What I liked best was the highlighting on the trees - you can almost feel the sunlight.

Also on display is a stylus, so you can see the instrument used to create these pieces - a nice touch, since I can only assume that others are as unfamiliar with this technique as I am.

Verdict: An interesting show, manageable in a lunch hour.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Part 2 of "Watch This!"

Where: American Art Museum

When: through September 7, 2015

It used to be the Hirshhorn had a monopoly on art videos, but the Smithsonian's American Art Museum has now stepped into this arena with a continuous show called "Watch This!"

The first offering was four different videos - quite manageable for a lunch time excursion.  This edition, however, was many videos - so many I lost count, and if you were going to watch them all from beginning to end, you'd need about half a day.  Many of them were on televisions set up quite close to each other, so you felt bombarded by sound.  Amidst the cacophony, it was well nigh impossible for me to hear anything clearly, so I skimmed through this section, wondering if that was the point: that modern society has become so noisy that you can't make out anything.

Nam June Paik was well represented, so if you like his work, run right over to this exhibit.  I admit I can't quite make up my mind about him.  Part of me likes his work, but part of me just...doesn't.

What I did enjoy was "Painted Projections" by Buky Schwartz.  It's painting on a wall and floor which doesn't look like much when you walk by, but is projected on a screen nearby and looks like a 3-D box.  When you walk past, you are "in" the box - it's pretty cool, but is hard to describe.  The interaction continues with "Text Rain" - letters fall on a screen, and when you walk by, they appear to fall on your head.  As long as you stand in one place, the letters pile up - again cooler that it sounds.

Verdict: All in all, interesting - not everything works, but it's worth a walk through.

A Black Box Oddity

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through August 9, 2015

As long-time readers of the blog are aware (perhaps all too well aware?), I'm not a great fan of the Hirshhorn.  Although I have seen good shows there, much of its collection is just bizarre, and I would like to get some of the hours I've spent there back, thank you very much.

One thing that is reliably good, however, is the "Black Box" series.  These are modern art videos, and they are weird (this is the Hirshhorn, after all), but interesting weird.  I might not fully understand what I'm seeing, but I'm often rooted to my seat - caught up anticipation of what will happen next.

This latest offering, Risto-Pekka Blom's “Kurdrjavka [Little Ball of Fur],” is certainly odd.  Apparently, the theme is the first dog in space, a Russian canine who perished in flight.  The dog's demise was covered up for decades, as it happened only a day or two into the mission - far earlier than what those sending her up into space had anticipated.

The video shows Laika the dog only for a few seconds; the rest of the piece is pictures of officials and official ceremonies put to an invented soundtrack - what's called "shredding."  This is a new term to me, although I've seen videos using this technique before.

My problem with the piece is that, if I didn't have the wall notes to tell me what this was, I'd have no idea what I was looking at.  They don't just complement the piece; they are necessary to any understanding of it.  The video itself is not riveting in the way others in this series have been, so I walked away scratching my head, wondering what the point of it was.

Verdict: Better than much of what's on offer at the Hirshhorn, but not the best of this series.


Although I've lived in the DC area since 1982, I'd never been to the National Cathedral until last week.  I'm not sure exactly why this fascinating attraction had never made it to the top of my "to visit" list; I suppose it was an over-exposure to ecclesiastical buildings in my youth.  When I learned that a fellow librarian (who is also a docent at the Cathedral) was offering a special "librarians only" tour of the Cathedral's gargoyles and grotesques, I decided to put aside my religious skepticism in order to participate in a "once in a lifetime" tour.

In addition to the informative presentation that makes up all gargoyle tours, and allows close-up views of the gargoyles, courtesy of PowerPoint, we were able to go out onto what were termed "balconies" in order to see the carvings in situ.  The balconies are actually maintenance access paths, which slope downwards to allow water runoff; at seven stories high, they're not for those fearful of heights!

We walked around, amidst cold and wind, and were rewarded with spectacular views, both of the city and of the church's carvings.   Often in single file and squeezing through narrow arches, I'm glad I did it, but am not chomping at the bit to do it again.  We made our way to the ground via an internal staircase not open to the public, allowing us to see some lovely stained glass windows.  Around the outside of the church, we looked at additional gargoyles and marveled at just how high up we had been.

If you are headed to the National Cathedral, I recommend a gargoyle tour (which includes the presentation and the views on the ground), and if you can get on one of Andrew Martin's tours, all the better.