Sunday, August 30, 2015

Is This the Weirdest Thing I've Ever Seen?

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (where else?)

When: through January 3, 2016

Obviously, the question I've posed in this blog posts's title is one only I can answer, so you gentle readers, may treat it as rhetorical.  In an effort to make up my mind on just how weird this is, I've been trying since Friday afternoon to think of something I've seen that's more peculiar than this, and I've not been able to come up with anything.

As we all know, the Hirshhorn is the home of the bizarre, the ridiculous and the eye-rolling when it comes to art, but as much as I criticize their permanent collection, I've always been a big fan of their video offerings.  "Floating McDonald's" is my all-time favorite, but I've seen many other films that I've just loved.  They're out of the ordinary, but they're interesting, thought-provoking, strange in a good way.

The latest addition to the Black Box series is something called "Ancha es Castilla" or "N'importe quoi."  Loosely translated, the French means "Whatever."  I'd be hard pressed to come up with  a better title.  Sergio Caballero is the film maker, and according to the wall notes outside the viewing room, he has a cult following at international film festivals.  I'm not surprised, as his work screams "cult following."

I could try to give you a synopsis of the plot of this 25-minute bit of cinema, but really, there are no words to describe this.  It deals with a child's exorcism and uses puppetry, but it's really something you have to see for yourself.  I watched the last half of the film (it runs on a continuous loop, with five minutes between showings), so maybe it would all have made sense if I'd seen it from the beginning, but somehow, I doubt it.  I'm not saying I didn't like it, but I'm reluctant to recommend it.

Verdict: If you're in the Hirshhorn anyway, have a look.  If you can make sense of it, let me know!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Contest Winner

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through November 1, 2015

The Portrait Gallery runs a contest a couple of times each year called "Recognize."  They offer up three choices of portraits and the public gets to vote on which one they'd like to see.  More details are available at

The latest contest featured well-known baseball players and Roberto Clemente emerged the winner.  If the seemingly endless parade of bad behaviors among modern-day athletes leaves you feeling less than eager to celebrate their accomplishments, a dose of Clemente is just what the doctor ordered.

A tremendously talented and successful ball player and a genuinely charitable human being, Clemente was killed in a plane crash on his way to help victims of the Nicaraguan earthquake in 1972.

Verdict: A fine photograph of a fine athlete and person - be sure to see this on your next trip to the Portrait Gallery.

Looking at Italian Art

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through January 3, 2016

It was a banner week this week, gentle readers.  I made not one but two, count 'em two, trips to the Hirshhorn!  Longtime followers know how much I love the Mall's big concrete donut and its collection of what my niece would call "silly art."  Well, there's plenty of that on offer in their show "Le Onde" on display until early January.

The show focuses on the Italian influence on modern art from Europe and Latin America in the 20th century and is co-sponsored by the Italian Embassy.  For a relatively small country that hasn't been powerful for more years than I can count, Italy exerts an out-sized influence on many forms of artistic expression, and I raise my hat to them.

The piece pictured here is called "Blue Surface 5," and it's by Enrico Castellani.  It's oil paint on linen stretched over nails.  When you're up close to it, you can see the nails protruding through the canvas, but viewed from a distance (or online), it looks like weaving.  I liked it, both for the trompe l'oeil effect and for the fantastic blue color.

The thing that really stole the show, however, was "Wave Motion Thread" by Francois Morellet.  This is the sort of thing that makes the Hirshhorn the Hirshhorn, and I'll warn you, I don't mean that in a good way.  This is, I kid you not, a piece of thread that stretches from the ceiling, where it's attached to a motor, almost to the floor, where it's attached to a plummet (a small piece of metal that keeps it stretched out).  For five minutes, the motor turns on and the thread bounces up and down.  Then, for ten minutes, it rests.  You've got to be kidding me.  Seriously, Hirshhorn?  A thread on  a motor bouncing up and down is not art.  It's just not.

One thing I do want to mention is the overall greatness of the Hirshhorn guards.  They are absolutely the friendliest, most helpful folks I've encountered in many years of museum-going.  One of them showed me how to look at a piece involving a projector (you put your arm in front of it, to see the projection) on this trip.  I've been helped by other guards several times.  No matter how much they must want to roll their eyes at the nonsense they see everyday, they are unfailingly pleasant.

Verdict: The best thing about this show is that it's close to another exhibit featuring a Yinka Shonibare piece.  It's okay, but not a crying shame if you miss it.  Unless you're really into bouncing thread.  Then run right over.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Robert Frank, not Anne

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through February 7, 2016

The library has put up a new exhibit in the West Building on photobooks.  These are books in which the majority of the content is photographs, what I might have called coffee table books before realizing there's an even more specific descriptive phrase available.

My issue with the last couple of these library displays is my issue with this one as well.  There are no wall notes to explain what you're seeing.  You just walk into the room, look at some items in the display cases, and walk out very little the wiser, unless you knew something about the subject before you arrived.

Granted, there is a pamphlet available that offers a wealth of information on what you're seeing, and this time, I took one.  I didn't have an enormous amount of time the day I went to the gallery, so I didn't read it while looking at the items; I figured I'd just have a gander at it before writing this post.

It's a lot of information - perhaps more than I really wanted to know about photobooks, truth be told.  Setting aside my quibble with the length, the information is quite helpful.  I realize that I need to allow some more time for these little shows, so that I can read the pamphlet in situ - treat it as a sort of portable version of wall notes.

Interestingly enough, I saw a piece I recognized - William Eggleston's photograph of the tricycle outside a tract house - what I call the "Giant Trike."  There's also a copy of Lee Friedlander's "American Monument," which I feel like I've seen at American Art.  If you remember this show - tell me in the comments!

Oh, the post title is a reference to the name of the display, "Photobooks after Frank."  When I first read it, I thought they meant Anne Frank and couldn't figure out what she had to do with photography.

Verdict: Now that I've figured out how to see these little exhibits, I think I'll appreciate them more.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Conversation about "Conversations"

Where: Museum of African Art

When: through January 24, 2016

I'd been debating with myself for a long time over whether to go to the Cosby exhibit at African Art.  On the one hand, I love going to exhibits, and I wanted to see the art works.  On the other hand, Mr. Cosby is at best, a huge sleazeball and at worst, a rapist.  Of course, it's not the art's fault that their owner is such a dreadful person.  But, he did use his persona as a "nice guy" to make a fortune, that enabled him to purchase all of this art, and have his collection shown at the Smithsonian.

I went back and forth for (literally) months.  I go to see shows based on when they're closing, and every time this show was the "next" one I would go to see, something else would open with an earlier closing date, and I could put off making a final decision. Finally, however, my luck ran out, and I decided to go see the show.  I'm not sure if I'm happy I saw it, but I am happy that I can stop thinking about going to see it.

Setting aside the controversy about the show for a moment, I want to focus on the show itself.  It's an interesting idea - juxtaposing works by African artists with works by African-American artists.  There are similar themes present, and they do seem to "go together" - nothing looks jarring or out of place.  Is this because the artists share a common cultural heritage, even if they've been separated from one another for hundreds of years?  I was reminded of a show on baskets I saw here several years ago, and how the items made by Africans are very similar to those made by African-Americans.  The topic is intriguing, and it's a shame that the scandal hanging over the show overshadows that.

One of the pairings I saw that I liked very much is the one represented here.  The painting "Benin Head" is by African-American artist David C. Driskill, and it is displayed alongside an actual Benin head sculpture.  I very much like seeing representations of things along with the actual thing itself.  It happens rarely, but I'm always delighted when it does.  I was also introduced to sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, whose works "Maternity" and "The Family" I impressed me very much.  I'll have my eye out for more of her work in future.

But now, back to the controversy.  As you walk into the exhibit, there is a notice containing a message to visitors about the exhibit.  The Smithsonian is taking the view (which I suppose is the one I ended up taking) that they decry Cosby's behavior, but they think the art is worthy of being shown on its own merits.  Just because a bad person likes a piece of art doesn't make the art itself bad.  They've also set up a comment book, which I didn't read, so if visitors want to vent their spleen, they may feel free to do so.

What struck me as I went through the show is how much of the Cosby pieces show families and spirituality.  In fact, the wall notes for the "Spiritualities" section indicates that these pieces are meant to be a guideline to pursue a moral life.  I would say that's the most ironic bit about this show, except that, in the display of quilts (which are lovely), one quilt has a square that reads, "What part of NO Didn't you Understand?"  Yes, indeed, that is the question.

Of course, Cosby's behavior is not the only controversy surrounding this exhibit.  There's the fact of the Smithsonian putting it on in the first place.  Apparently, it's considered bad form to display works from a private collector that have not been given or promised to the museum displaying them.  I gather that having your works shown at an institution with the reputation of the Museum of African Art increases the value of the works, so the museum is, in essence, giving the collector a gift.  When you add in that the director of the museum is a personal friend of the Cosbys, well, that starts to look bad.

Verdict: The show is very large, and I only had time to skim much of it.  You could easily spend two lunch hours looking at everything.  I didn't feel great walking around, I must confess.  The scandal hangs heavy in the atmosphere.  Whether you'd feel the same way is something only you can decide.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Will There be an App for That?

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through November 1, 2015

The Archives of American Art, that repository of all documents related to this country's art and artists, has as new show on that deals with the inter-relationships between artists, as revealed in their address books.  I've used address books for years, and still have one that I refer to, if not often, then often enough to make it worthwhile to keep it up to date.  I gather that this makes me an outlier, and that everyone keeps their contact information on their smartphones now.  In fact, the show actually offers an explanation of what an address book is - assuming that at least some of their visitors will not have ever owned or used one.

So how will future archivists unravel the web of friendships, business relationships and romances that shows how artists were related to one another and to those who supported their work?  Will they collect smartphones?  Will there be an app for that?

It occurs to me that this type of exhibit and the research behind it won't be possible in future, and it causes me to ponder (not for the first time) how much harder technology is making the job of future historians.  Gone are the letters between parted friends and family members, replaced by email or texts or tweets.  Going are the book collections, with marginalia, replaced by e-readers.  Vanished are the drafts of manuscripts, with corrections and re-writes, replaced by word processing.  Ah well, they say everything lives on forever, once it's online.  Not such a comfortable thought when one considers one's party photos, but perhaps a boon to those who will write biographies.

But enough wool-gathering, on to the show itself.  It's the standard one-room offering, so perfect for a lunch time excursion.  The decor is their usual nice touch; they seem to put as much thought into that as into the documents on display, and it really adds to the show.  The organization of an artist's address book can tell you quite a bit about their view of the person listed - what category did the person fall into?  Close friend, business contact, passing acquaintance?  The lack of organization raises questions that are perhaps unanswerable: who is this person with just a first name and a number?

In addition to "little black books," there are displays of other historical technologies: a 3.5" floppy disk, a rolodex and a pile of business cards.  The show makes references to the "speed of obsolescence," and if there's some way of measuring that, I can only imagine the number is frighteningly high.

Verdict: I liked this display, and would recommend a visit.  Make a lunch hour excursion, or tack a few minutes on to a visit to another show.  You can even use your smartphone to download interviews with artists!

A Complement to the "View" Paintings

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through November 1, 2015

When one thinks of the Freer, one thinks primarily of Asian art, and with good reason.  The collection is wonderful, as anyone who's followed this blog knows. The pottery, the paintings, the screens, the sculpture, what I call beautiful things, beautifully displayed.

Freer collected American art as well as Asian, and it's this part of his collection that is on display in the show entitled, "Fine Impressions: Whistler, Freer, and Venice."

Freer was initially unimpressed with Whistler and was at a loss to understand his popularity.  Then he what I can only describe as a "Paul on the road to Damascus" moment in a fellow collector's apartment, and started buying Whistler pieces the next day.  Eventually, the two men became friends, and Whistler helped Freer amass what is arguably the finest collection of Whistlers in the world.

The show is of Whistler's etchings of Venice.  Not the touristy Venice, so beloved of "view painters" and post card photographers, but the other Venice - that inhabited by its ordinary citizens.  People in these pieces go about their daily lives, including hanging out an extraordinary amount of washing.  Shirts seem to hang from every window.  There's an intimacy that I like in these works, a universality of human experience; it's only the water-filled streets and the gondolas that put you in Venice and not in another city.

Interestingly, Whistler did all of his own printmaking, something artists often left to others.  His involvement in every aspect of the creation of these pieces gives you a sense of a single vision in these pictures.  No one else has super-imposed his or her ideas of how the scene should look.  This is how Whistler wants you to see his Venice.

The show also includes a fan and a ceramic bottle, which Freer said reminded him of Whistler's work.  I could not help but be reminded in my turn of the Barnes, with its juxtapositioning of "flat art" and handcrafts.

Verdict: A small show, easily managed in a lunch hour; it's on the ground floor of the museum, so head downstairs from the main entrance. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Both an Advertisement and an Arcade

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through January 2016

As long time readers are well aware, Air and Space is possibly my least favorite Smithsonian Museum.  It's always crowded, usually with noisy boys running madly from rocket to rocket, and gawping parents, stopping every three steps to look at the space ships hanging from the ceiling.  Don't misunderstand me, I've seen some good things here, mostly in the gallery devoted to art (the photographs of the planets is one of the best things I've seen ever), but as a general rule, I don't view a trip to Air and Space with the happy anticipation I experience when contemplating a trip to the Sackler.

Today's voyage did nothing to change my view of Air and Space, although I think this exhibit will delight many visitors.  It's called "Above and Beyond," and it deals with innovation in flight.  Since flight, whether on Earth or into space, is nothing but innovation, this is not much of a stretch.  There's plenty to talk about and lots to do.

It's a brand new display, very bright and shiny and interactive.  It reminded me strongly of an arcade filled with games, although it occurs to me that such places are probably passe now that everyone has a game system at home.  You see the family happily positioning themselves as flying birds in the picture - it's lots of that sort of thing.  Videos and simulations are the order of the day.

I also noticed that Boeing is the sponsor of this exhibit.  Their name is featured prominently throughout, and in the video I watched, I learned about some new products they are working to develop.  I was too weary from being interacted with to develop a full rationale for why this bothered me, but it did and still does.  I'm bombarded by advertising every where I look; I'd like my museums to be commercial-free.

Verdict: If you've got children or if you're a fan of games, run right over to Air and Space.  Otherwise, you can give this a miss.