Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Lengths People Would Go to Gather Bird Droppings

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 29, 2017

To be honest, I don't usually expect an exciting show when I go to the Small Documents Gallery at American History.  Not that the displays can't be interesting, but documents don't generally lend themselves to blockbuster exhibits.  The current display pushes the arcane aspect to the limit, I think.

In the 1800s, people began to use bird droppings (guano) as fertilizer.  Apparently, the stuff is tremendous, increasing yields exponentially.  And if there's money to be made, people will do anything, including sailing to remote islands to gather bird crap and cart it back home to sell.  Which they did.

The centerpiece of the display is the Norie Marine Atlas, which is considered the pinnacle of the printmaker's art, and the only copy in a public collection.  It's quite large (a double elephant folio) and not in the best of condition, but it's impressive nonetheless.  Coastlines were well filled out, but the interiors of South America were largely blank.

Of course, the guano trade ended in the way so many of these stories do: humans stepped in and harvested all of the bird crap (which was 200 feet high to start), destroying the sea birds' habitat in the process.  Sort of like the passenger pigeon, except with droppings.

Verdict: If you skip this, it's okay.  Unless you're interested in 19th century navigation or the history of man's relationship with birds.  Then you should see this.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

That's One Big Blue Rooster

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 22, 2017

So I finally had a chance to see the new and improved East Building of the National Gallery of Art this week.  There are now three towers; the original one is called Tower 3.  I mention this as I spent a lot of time walking around Towers 1 and 2 before finally asking a guard how to find the Barbara Kruger exhibit.  I wound up pretty much back where I started, so I made notes in my trusty journal about how to get up there from the Concourse.

On my way, I went out on to the rooftop garden, which I think will be lovely in the warmer months, and saw the pictured statue.  If you're looking for a big, blue rooster, you can't do better than this.

I really enjoyed my time with the Kruger pieces, once I found them.  They are very large photographs of images she's found in popular magazines or in advertising, with her own text superimposed.  My favorite was one of two children: a boy flexing his muscles and a girl looking on admiringly.  The caption?  "We don't need another hero."  Amen to that, Barbara.  Amen to that.

So it's been a surprising couple of weeks: first I loved something I saw at the Hirshhorn, and now I thought the trek up to the Tower at the National Gallery was worth the trip.  Will wonders never cease?

Verdict: Go see these commentaries on modern society; the cardio workout up the spiral staircase is not the only attraction.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Stashed Away Under the Escalators

Where: The Postal Museum

When: through January 16, 2017

The Postal Museum doesn't often have special exhibits, so I don't visit very mjuch.  When I worked close by, I saw the permanent collection, so I only go if there's something temporary up.  The last thing I recall really liking was a show about Franklin Roosevelt and stamps.

This week, I went over to see two documents, borrowed from a private collection, that are important to the history of the British mail service.  The first was a declaration from Charles I that the Royal Mail could be used for private purposes, dating from 1635.  It's in very fine condition, for being almost 400 years old.  The second is comparatively recent, from 1840; it's a letter sheet proof for the first stamp for individual use of the post office.  From 1635 to 1840, the mail was used largely for business purposes; this allowed private persons to use the mail as well.

My only quibble is that this display is literally under the escalators running between the museum's first and second floors, so it's very easy to overlook them.  Perhaps they wanted something that wouldn't get a lot of light, but surely they could have managed something a bit better than this?

Verdict: Worth seeing if you're a British history buff.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

An Invitation I'm Happy to Accept

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: through January 16, 2017

Every other year, the Renwick showcases four artists that it believes deserve wider recognition.  Based on what I've seen over the years, I hope they get it.  I still have vivid memories of the knitted superhero costumes I saw several years ago.

This year's offerings are wonderful.  The pic is from the works of Steven Young Lee - I really wish I could buy one of those cups.  They are incredibly inviting somehow; I can imagine myself sitting down with one, full of tasty chai, enjoying a good book.  Lee's ceramics are just great - as I walked through the display of vase and pots, each with a hole in it, or deformed in some way, I was reminded of a show I'd seen at the Freer (which is supposed to re-open this year - hooray!) about the art of mending pottery.  And lo and behold, what should I see but a jar with exactly that sort of repair work.  Such a sense of self-satisfaction!

I also loved the jewelry of Jennifer Trask - stunning colors, particularly in "Sea Change Brooch."  Norwood Viviano traces human migration patterns to make his art, and Kristen Morgin uses clay for her "created nostalgia."  You think you're looking at a deck of cards or a lunchbox or "Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds," but it's all clay.

Verdict: The Renwick Invitational is always good; when you go, remember that preparations are well underway for the inauguration, so you may have to walk a bit out of your way.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Not Quite as Memorable as the Last Time

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 8, 2017

Every three years, the National Portrait Gallery holds an art competition.  This year, there were 2,500 entrants (professionals and non-professionals), and 43 of the finalists' work is on display.   I liked this show, but it wasn't as good as the previous display three years ago.  Of course, that was one of the best shows I've seen, each piece would have been the star of any other exhibit, so that's an amazingly high bar to meet.

There were a couple of interesting pieces:  "A Moment in Time" was a series of portraits of the artist in period costume, taken with period photographic technology and displayed in period frames.  Starting in 1850 and ending in 2010, you can see the changes that 260 years have brought to clothing, technology and design.  "Caja de Memoria Viva II: Constancia Colon de Clemente" was a multimedia display hung from the ceiling - you walked under it and were immersed in an audio-visual display.

Verdict: Good, but not great.  Worth seeing, but nothing you have to run to see.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

In Memoriam: John Glenn

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 9, 2017

One of the great losses of 2016, a lousy year if ever there was one, was astronaut, Senator and all-around great person, John Glenn.  If more public servants could show his courage and decency, the world would be a better place.

The work itself is unfinished, or at least, it looked so to me.  My thought was that perhaps it is meant to evoke the unfinished nature of our exploration of our world, whether here on earth or in the wider universe.

Verdict: If you're at the museum before Monday, add this to your visit. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A New Favorite in a Most Unlikely Place

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through January 8, 2017

If you've not been to see Ragnar Kjartansson's mid-career retrospective at the Hirshhorn, stop whatever you're doing and run right over there this minute to see it before it closes tomorrow.

I've not been this excited about an artist since Yinka Shonibare, and regular readers of this blog will know how much I love his work.

My only regret is that I didn't see this show earlier in its run, so I could have seen it again.  Yet another argument against procrastination.  I confess, I thought it would be yet another Bataan Death March show on the Hirshhorn's second floor, a slog I'd be happy to see end.  In the event, nothing could have been further from the truth.  When I realized I'd made the full circuit, I was surprised and sorry that it was over.

So many great things in this show.  "Woman in E" is getting lots of press and deservedly so, so I'll refrain from adding my voice to the chorus of praise.  The video in the first room, where Death walks with children was creepy and funny all at the same time.  "You're just an elf with a stick," says one perceptive child - hilarious.  One of the wall notes speaks of "...the inevitable disappointment of romantic desire."  And the piece in the photo above (taken by me - another resolution for 2017, to use my own snaps) was described as referring to "...long-suffering Scandinavian icons of gorgeous misery."

Perhaps my favorite part was the enormous video installation, with multiple screens, of the artist and his friends all playing the same tune in a large house, each on a different instrument.  They wander about from screen to screen - you almost feel as if you're there with them.

Verdict: Great stuff - do not miss this!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Day Brightener

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 8, 2017

I really love the Muppets.  I loved them when I was a kid watching Sesame Street, I loved them as a teenager when The Muppet Show was on, and I love them still.  I headed over to American History last week to see what I thought would be Fozzie Bear and the Swedish Chef, but somehow, turned out to be Cookie Monster and Elmo.  Since the Swedish Chef is one of my absolute favorites, I was somewhat disappointed, but seeing Cookie Monster from 1969 was pretty amazing.

The original Kermit is also on display; I'd seen him before, but if you haven't seen him, you really need to do so.  The Muppets attracted quite a crowd, which gladdens my heart.  Miss Piggy is still in the front display case with Carole Burnett's scrub woman costume and a dress belonging to Phyllis Diller, and she (Miss Piggy) generated a lot of interest from those in line making their way through security.

I took a photo of the incredibly long line to get into American History, but my phone and my email are not on speaking terms at present, so just imagine a line stretching from the door all the way to Constitution Avenue, and you have an idea of what the crowds are like.

Verdict: It's always a good idea to see a Muppet whenever you can.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Uncomfortable History of the 50th State

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through January 2, 2017

Today's the day, people!  Head to NMAI and travel to Hawaii.  Keep in mind, this is not a travelogue of sandy beaches and swaying palm trees, but a serious look at the history of Hawaii, which is far less beautiful then its scenery.

The United States conquered Hawaii and annexed it, actions for which President Clinton apologized in the 1990s - good for him, I say.  The island's history is a cautionary tale of what happens to native people when big business runs a country.  Spoiler alert: it's not good.  The only laudatory thing that those who came to conquer did in Hawaii was to teach everyone to read.  Their literacy rate was, at one time at least, as close to 100% as you can get.

The question one is left with at the end of the exhibit is: where does Hawaii go from here?

Verdict: Quite interesting overview of a part of American history of which I was heretofore ignorant.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Waste No Time

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 2, 2017

You've got one day, tomorrow, to see this show.  I saw it a few weeks ago, but I've not been blogging recently, due to family obligations and the holidays.  My New Year's resolution?  Blog regularly no matter what!

This is worth seeing, if you're a fan of photography.  It includes photography and videos from the National Gallery's collection and the recent additions from the Corcoran's collection.  Long time rivals must now live together - perhaps a lesson in that for all of us?

There were several pieces I really liked in this large multi-room show, but my notes are scribbled, and it's been so long since I visited that I'm not sure exactly what I wrote.  Sigh, yet another reason to blog more frequently.

The show is divided into five sections: Movement, Sequence, Narrative, Studio and Identity.  It's a good way to show the pieces and make sense of them, as it gives you a a theme to focus on while you're seeing an almost endless number of photographs.  One artist I was very happy to see again was Lalla Essaydi, a Moroccan born artist, who I'd seen previously at the Museum of African Art.  Her photographs of women with Arabic script written on their skin are really thought-provoking.

Verdict: If you have a chance to see this tomorrow, do so.