Sunday, December 27, 2015

Impressive Works Impressively Displayed

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through March 20, 2016

I'm hardly alone in recommending a trip to the National Gallery's latest blockbuster show; the Washington Post recently had a rave review, and if you Google the show title and "review," you'll turn up many other articles. I feel as if I'm just joining my voice to the chorus, but will do so anyway, because to ignore this show would be wrong.  Very wrong indeed.

When one thinks of classical sculpture, one things of marble, as that is what has survived.  Bronze, however, was a far more common medium of artistic expression.  Sadly, it was often melted down and turned into more mundane objects, so we're left with relatively few examples of this particular Hellenistic art.  Add to that the tendency of classical objects to be lost, whether on land or sea, and the modern world's ignorance of bronze sculpture is understandable.

Happily, the National Gallery's show allows you to fill this gap in your knowledge, and you should make a point of doing so before the show ends in mid-March.  It's not just that the works themselves are wonderful, although they are; it's that the design of the show is wonderful as well.  The use of backdrops to position the works in their original settings is effective - you almost feel yourself transported back to ancient Greece.  The works are spread out across enough rooms that you never feel crowded; each work has the space it needs to be appreciated.

The show begins with a bang - the "Getty Bronze" dominates the first room of the show and was my personal favorite piece.  Lucky are the residents of southern California who can see this work on a regular basis.  This is just the start of a collection of 50 of the most significant bronzes in the world.

Most of the works are missing the eyes of the statute, which were made of substances  less likely to withstand the ravages of time than bronze.  Without eyes, the pieces, especially those that are only heads, look like masks - as if you could put the piece on and become a citizen of a vanished world.

Those with eyes command your attention - they stare out at you with an energy you cannot ignore.  You feel a real connection with a world very far away from our own, both in time and distance.  That's one of the things I love about antiquities - you realize that, no matter how long ago artists lived, they were human beings, capable of observing life around them and creating beauty from what they saw.

Verdict: What are you waiting for?  Get out and see this show!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Best Name for a Show

Where: American Art Museum

When: March 20, 2016

In case you've not had your fill of photographic art, there's a show on at the American Art Museum that is worth a look.  The photographs of Irving Penn are on display here, but not his fashion work; this is everything else he did.  It's called "Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty," and that's exactly what it is.

No rail-thin models in haute couture to be seen - it's a wide display of abstraction, portraits of the famous (like the Truman Capote seen here), still lifes, group shots and portraits taken on his many international travels.

Penn had a real talent for photographing a large number of people at once.  Somehow, he manages to make every one look good, which is no small task.  Each person looks as if the shot is an individual portrait - there's no one hiding behind a taller person, or looking distracted.

I particularly liked his still life called "Frozen Food."  It's just that - food that's been frozen and put together for the picture.  It's full of vivid color and of ice. I also saw a portrait of Henry Moore, and it was nice to have a face to go with the art.

Verdict: This first museum retrospective of his work since his death in 2009 is a big show, so you'll want to allow some time to wander through.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

More Photos at the National Gallery of Art

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through March 13, 2016

2015 represents the 25th anniversary of the National Gallery's photography collection.  This is the final show of the celebration of that anniversary, and there are many things worth seeing in it.

It's organized into five different rooms, each with its own theme.  I didn't necessarily find the organizational scheme all that intuitive, but frankly, you can get plenty out of the show without concerning yourself with why certain pieces are put into the same room.

One of the things I liked best was actually outside of the rooms - a set of two pieces, one a painting by George Bellows entitled "New York" and the other a photographic collage by Vik Muniz called "New York City, after Bellows."  Basically, Muniz sought to re-create Bellows' painting by taking photographs, putting them together into a collage and then photographing and enlarging that.  Both works are great on their own; putting them together just makes them better.

Richard Avedon is well represented in this show.  I very much admired his portrait, taken in 1963, of a man born into slavery.  There's something about the way this (very old) man stares into the camera that forces the viewer to acknowledge his condition - you can't ignore him.  Very powerful.

In another room, there is an entire wall of portraits of 1970s political celebrities, also by Avedon.  There's a listing of who's who, and I enjoyed looking at the photographs and trying to identify the subjects.  Lots of people who are now either deceased or much older - it really takes you back 40 years.

Diane Arbus is also on display, in a series of photos of "awkward children."  Really, don't all of us fall into that category from time to time?

Verdict: Perhaps not as good as the earlier show, "The Memory of Time," but if you like photography, well worth seeing.

The Ugliness that is Surrealism

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through Feb. 15, 2016

My apologies for the recent lack of blogging - Thanksgiving, work busy-ness and some family issues have taken up a lot of time and energy lately.  Now that the turkey and stuffing are nothing but rapidly disappearing leftovers, however, I'm back at my computer.

Of course, the fact that the first two shows I have to review are surrealist works at the Hirshhorn doesn't fill me with a keen desire to put fingers to keyboard.  "Marvelous Objects" is a survey of surrealist art and "Le 'NEW' Monocle" is a recent work inspired by surrealism.  Both of them left me shaking my head, thinking "Why does anyone want to come and look at this stuff?"  It's weird, but so is a lot of stuff that I like quite a bit.  I really puzzled over my negative reaction until I realized - it's all so ugly.  It's depressing and uninspiring.  It's a good thing I got a nice walk out of my trips to see these shows, as that was the only thing I got out of them.

Many famous names are on display in "Marvelous Objects," including Salvador Dali's "Aphrodisiac Jacket."  This was originally filled with actual green peppermint liqueur and visitors were encouraged to drink it.  I can see the complications from that policy, but a few stiff belts would have been welcome.  A piece called "Lobster Telephone" (I neglected to write down whose creation this was, and I just can't be bothered to look it up) was originally meant to be displayed with an actual lobster (deceased) which would decay and smell - I'm sure that's symbolic of something, but I don't want to be in a room with it.  Happily, the Hirshhorn's version has a plastic(?) lobster resting on a rotary dial phone.

The Washington Post reviewed this show and called it offensive to women, due to the many pieces that objectify and supposedly depict violence against females.  I'm as sensitive to objectification and violence as the next woman, but it was hard for me to summon up any offense, as the pieces were incomprehensible.

At the end of the show, there's a shadow box full of objects, and visitors are encouraged to make their own surrealist art.  Since my motto is, "if I can do it, it's not art," this served to validate my feeling that whatever this collection may be, a great artistic achievement it is not.

Shana Lutker is the artist behind the other show, which is part of the "Directions" series.  Apparently, our friends the surrealists, not content to make ugly pieces and feel alienated from society, would disagree with one another (about what exactly, I don't know) and occasionally, these disagreements would become violent.  Her three pieces are meant to represent three famous fistfights engaged in by surrealists; apparently, all that ugliness didn't do much to make them feel friendly towards their fellow man.

I can't really say this exhibit is either good or bad; it's just incomprehensible.  I dutifully read all the wall notes, hoping for some elucidation, but none was to be had.

Verdict: You know perfectly well I'm not going to recommend these shows.  Do yourself a favor and check out the Downtown Holiday Market at lunch time - many lovely crafts on display, and no fisticuffs!