Saturday, October 31, 2015

Big Influence; Big Exhibit

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through January 31, 2016

Tawaraya Sotatsu, who worked in the early 1600s, was a major influence on many well-known Japanese artists, but this is his first major retrospective in the Western Hemisphere.  Little is known about his personal life, and many of his works were erroneously credited to others.

Charles Lang Freer took an interest in his work in the early 1900s and purchased two Sotatsu masterpieces: "Dragons and Clouds" and "Waves at Matsushima" (pictured here).  Happily, both are on display, and they are truly amazing.  They are quite large; you really need to step back and view them at a distance to take them in.  "Waves" is not only a depiction of the sea, but also colorful trees and rocks.  "Dragons," although less colorful, is no less powerful; you feel as if the beasts are going to come right out of the screens.

Perhaps my favorite piece is one entitled "A Child Holding a Spotted Puppy"; it's very endearing.   The expressions on both the child's and the puppy's faces are lovely.  It makes you realize that no matter how much the world has changed in the last 400 years (and it's changed a lot), there will always be kids and dogs.

A video guide placed near the entrance of the show alerts you to the techniques on display in Sotatsu's art.  I don't know why they've set this up, but I like it very much, both because it's informative and because it's so well done.  I wish they would do this for more shows going forward.  It's not that the work is that inaccessible to Western viewers, but for those of us without Freer's discerning eye, it's helpful!

Another aspect of this show that's new to me is the opportunity for audience participation.  About mid-way through the show (which is HUGE), visitors can pick up fan-shaped pieces of paper and use colored pencils to draw their own designs.  Once finished, you can share your fan decoration on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.   It's a contest (involving likes on Facebook); the prize is a basket of Sotatsu-related items.  It occurred to me that my niece might enjoy this type of thing; I'll have to see if she might like to go over winter break...

I also want to give them kudos for providing directions through the show right at the entrance, so you know where to start and how to proceed to see everything.  In addition, they direct you to a related show in the Freer.  This is exactly the kind of signage I'd like to see throughout the Smithsonian: easy to understand and very informative.

In addition to original works, there is also a section of digital images.  Many Asian art works are either so old or so fragile that they are not able to be displayed.  Digital photography allows visitors to see these works in tremendous detail, without damaging the originals.  The Sackler and Freer are experimenting with this technology, so I'm hoping that more Sotatsu pieces will be on display digitally in the years to come.

The final part of the exhibit is entitled "Rediscovery" and contains pieces done by later artists influenced by Sotatsu and/or in homage to his work.  There are some terrific things in this set of galleries as well.

Verdict: This is a whale of an exhibit.  If you recall the show they had on yoga a while back, it's set up (I think) in the same spaces and is about as large.  Not really a lunchtime outing, unless you rush through, and what's the sense in that?  Worth savoring.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Television of the 19th Century

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through March 13, 2016

When most people, myself included, think of American photographers working at the time of the Civil War, they think of Matthew Brady.  He was not, however, the only person taking photographs in the 19th century, and the Portrait Gallery's current show of images by Alexander Gardner may make you think twice about according Brady pride of place among early practitioners of the art.

Gardner worked with Brady before opening his own studio, and he continued the portrait work for which Brady is justly famous.  Gardner, however, did not remain indoors; he took his equipment to the battlefields of the Civil War and brought into the living rooms of "the folks back home" the realities (more or less - more on that in a moment) of armed conflict.   Americans, living in the height of the Victorian era, had romantic ideas of what war was about - after looking at these photographs, those ideas had to be abandoned in favor of a far more grim reality.

Of course, whenever the subject of a show is photography, the question of reality rears its head.  When one sees a photo, one thinks one is seeing a picture of something that actually happened.  As the National Gallery's 2013 show "Faking It" showed viewers, that's not always true.  Gardner was not someone who used the photographic process to fake his images, but he certainly did create images that he then photographed.  His photograph, "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter" was supposed to show a dead sniper, fallen while attacking Union troops.  In reality, Gardner moved the body from the battlefield into a different area and pictured him with a gun he would not have been using.  Was this person a Confederate soldier who died at Gettysburg?  Certainly, yes.  Did he die in the way and place that Gardner's photograph showed?  Just as certainly, no.  It seems to me that war is horrible enough without creating tableaux designed to tug more strongly on the heartstrings.

Despite the notoriety that Gardner's battle photos won him, his most famous image is the one pictured above - the "cracked plate" Lincoln.  True confession: I don't quite see the fascination with this image.  There are several other, I think better, pictures of Lincoln on display in this show - this one just seems out of focus and ill-framed.  To me, it's simply a snapshot, not a portrait.  The fact that the plate is cracked through in the place in the image where Lincoln's head is situated, and that Lincoln would be shot in the head not long afterwards is to me a dubious hook on which to hang the description of "accidental masterpiece."  However, it has become one of the most famous and iconic pictures in the history of American photography, so if you go to the show, by all means, see it.

The show itself is well done; I give the lighting director a lot of credit, as the images require low light in order to preserve them, but viewers need to be able to see.  I found my eyes adjusted quite quickly, and I had no problem in seeing both the wall notes and the photographs.  The show is set up in a hallway, with pieces in rooms on both sides and in the hallway itself.  You go through two rooms on one side, that are his early works and Antietam photographs, then through the rooms on the other side, which are later Civil War photographs, as well as images depicting the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination.  Finally, Gardner's photographs of the West and the Native Americans who inhabited it are hanging in the hallway.

Verdict: This is a large show, with lots of notes to read.  If you work any distance from the Portrait Gallery, you'll have a hard time seeing the whole thing in a lunch hour.  If you are interested in photography, the Civil War or depictions of Native Americans in the 19th century, by all means, make time to see this exhibit.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

When Once Isn't Enough

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through February 7, 2016

Repetition is the name of the game in this exhibit of works from the renowned Los Angeles print workshop and publisher Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited).  Each work is a series of pieces, so you're seeing both the whole and  the sum of the parts.

This is the sort of show that I think will appeal to many visitors, as the type of art on display really runs the gamut.  I don't see how anyone could like everything, for the same reason.  The picture posted here is from the first room which has this Jasper Johns set of colorful numerals, along with a Roy Lichtenstein series of paintings of a bull.  I'm not a big fan of Johns, but I did like the Lichtenstein.  The first piece is a bull - clear and simple.  No need to scratch your head and ponder.  As the series progresses (or regresses, depending on your point of view), the bull becomes steadily more abstract, until, by the final piece, you could have no idea what it was unless you'd seen the whole set.  It gave me a greater appreciation of abstract act; it's not just random line and squiggles - it really is something.

I was far less impressed with the room of Ellsworth Kelly pieces - all just monochromatic shapes.  How is that different than painting your living room?  By my rule of "If I can do it, it's not art," this is definitely not art.

My favorite piece in the show was a David Hockney work called "Snow," part of his "Weather" series.  It's something that would be right at home at the Freer.  Snow covered mountain and tree branch - one expects a Chinese scholar to come out of the corner, on his way to visit a friend.  Lovely: spare, simple and restful to view.

Verdict: Worth a look - there's bound to be something that pleases you.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

50 years old and still topical

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 20, 2016

The Hart-Celler Act may be 50 years old, but the issue of immigration could not be more current.  This act shaped modern American society, by allowing people from Latin America and Asia to immigrate in large numbers to the U.S.

Prior to 1965, U.S. immigration policies favored white people seeking to come here from Northern Europe.  The Hart-Celler Act enabled immigrants from all over the world to come, and our food, popular culture and way of life generally have been changed (in my opinion, for the better) in many ways.  This is a far more diverse nation than it was before 1965, and I think many people are more open to learning about the experiences of those different from themselves than they were when they lived only with those who looked and lived just as they did.

The people you might recognize in the picture above include not only President Lyndon Johnson signing the legislation, but also his wife Lady Bird Johnson, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and both Ted and Bobby Kennedy.

Verdict:  If you're at American History, stop and have a look at this display in a case on the 2nd floor (it's off to the side, not in the main hall).