Sunday, April 30, 2017

One of the Best Things I've Ever Seen

Recently, I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to see the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  I got the ticket through the local law librarians organization to which I belong, so I have no idea how long it took to obtain the passes or how difficult the process was.  My understanding is that it's both long and arduous.  Even if that's true, it's still worth the wait and the trouble, because this is an amazing and incredible museum.

What you can see of the building from the outside is only about half of the space.  The History Galleries are all below ground.  So the museum is far larger than it appears.

When you enter, you take an escalator or stairs down to the concourse level and from there, you get into a large (room-sized) elevator to go to the very bottom level.  Then, you make your way back up to the concourse by walking through African-American history.  I'll be honest, it's not always an easy trip.  The beginning is especially intense; it's the slave ships.  The horrors can make you doubt the basic decency of humanity, and the exhibits are (I believe deliberately) cramped and dark.

Then, we have the years of slavery.  The image that stayed with me was of a woman, put up for sale, who was beaten until her infant was wrenched from her grasp, so that the child could be sold separately.  Even now, I find it hard to discuss; there are some things for which I have no words.

After the Civil War, there is segregation, and the Civil Rights movement, and the final decades of the 20th century, when African-Americans began to appear more frequently, and as real characters (as opposed to caricatures) in popular culture.  Finally, there is the inauguration of Barack Obama, and I'm not someone who gets choked up easily, but I felt a catch in my throat.

Back on the concourse level, I headed to the restaurant.  This is not to be missed.  Set up in stations (like the restaurant at American Indian), I opted for the friend chicken and macaroni and cheese.  This entailed a wait in line, but it was worth every minute - so delicious.  When I go back, I'll get something else, but only because I'd like to try other offerings, not out of any dissatisfaction with what I had.

Above ground are the Culture Galleries, which I decided to skip.  I was exhausted, having spent two solid hours, mostly on my feet.  I will tackle them next time, for sure.

My advice: get tickets for as early in the day as possible - there's lots to see.  Wear the most comfortable pair of shoes you own.  Go to the restaurant.

Verdict: Simply amazing.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Art at the Postal Museum

Where: National Postal Museum

When: through May 14, 2017

I confess, I wasn't intending to see this show.  The closing date had been earlier, and I just didn't want to spend the time to go over to Union Station in bad weather to see what I thought would be another ho-hum display.

Then, the run was extended, and I had taken a day off to run some errands, and I was able to see it after all, with very little trouble or inconvenience.

And I'm glad I did, because this is a nice little show, featuring art used on stamps.  So really, it's not a stamp exhibit, it's an art exhibit, and that's my thing!

The subject matter is the city of New York, in a variety of aspects (all positive, of course), including the one pictured, which is of Grand Central Station, in all its Art Deco glory.  These are from the Postmaster General's collection, which is on long-term loan to the Postal Museum.

While there, I also saw the inverted Jenny, which is a great rarity - sort of the Honus Wagner baseball card of stamps.  If you have an interest in philatelic history, I'm pretty sure this is not to be missed.

Verdict: Better than I thought - I had considered dropping the Postal Museum from my rounds, but now I think I'll keep going, at least a little while longer.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lost in the Kusama Whirlwind

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through May 14, 2017

It occurs to me that you really don't want to be an artist with a show at the Hirshhorn right now.  Sure, there's a crowd here, but they're not here to see you.  Who would go to the concrete doughnut and brave the insanity if they weren't going to see Kusama?  Well, me obviously, but almost no one else.

Linn Meyers has a show up now, especially created for the Hirshhorn's 2nd floor, and I walked around to see it recently.  Once I got past the crowds in the inner galleries, I had the place to myself.  Which was great for me, but not so great (I assume) for Meyers.  She's put these line drawings on the walls of the building; they struck me as looking like feathers or hair or fur.  The time and work involved must have been enormous, but it's all to be painted over when the show closes.

And somehow, that makes it worse that the work is getting so little attention.  If something's going to have such a short life (367 days), you'd like it to be really popular.  I'm gong to hope that before Kusama showed up, lots of people saw this.

Verdict: Go see this work before it's gone forever.  And not like those stores that run constant going out of business sales and never seem to close, but for real.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Orchids + Hirshhorn = Why?

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through May 14, 2017

One of the shows I look forward to with eager anticipation is the bi-annual orchid exhibit at the Natural History Museum.  They set up a room full of flowers; it's like entering a different world.  I like to go when it's a particularly unpleasant day; it's like taking an hour long vacation from winter.

This year, for reasons that are unclear to me, the Smithsonian has decided to put the orchid display in the Hirshhorn.  It's in the main entryway, on the shelves depicted here.  The problems with this are as follows:

1. The plants are right in the middle of the hustle and bustle, which means one is not transported to a gentle, spring-like atmosphere.

2. The plants are a mere side-show, especially since the Hirshhorn is now a madhouse for the duration of the Kusama show; these are lovely flowers and deserve pride of place.

3. Although one might think that such a location would be damaging to the plants, it turns out that orchids are not fragile little snowflakes; they are quite hardy - how do I know this?  I read it on the wall notes at an earlier show.   Which brings us to the next problem, which is that there are no wall notes.

I can only hope that next year, I will be able to enjoy this event at Natural History.  Or at the Sackler or African Art - the smaller number of visitors would allow greater enjoyment.  Or at the International Gallery in the Ripley would be a great place.  Or, dare to dream,  maybe there would be a room in the Arts and Industries Building?  Or at the Freer, since it will be open again...

Verdict: Poor plants and poor visitors - deprived of a winter break by a bad location.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Celebrating Ella Fitzgerald

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 14, 2017

It's the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald's birth, and a great photograph of her (as well as Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Jackson) is on display in the "Celebrate" space.  You may recall that this is also the "In Memoriam" space, and if someone famous dies, that person's portrait goes up.  With the celebrity death toll of the last year, you may want to see this sooner rather than later.

Verdict: Great action shot of Fitzgerald, and the expression on Gillespie's face is priceless.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

"Scary" Videos at the Portrait Gallery

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 7, 2017

The Portrait Gallery's first display of entirely video art is up for another couple of weeks, and it's worth a look.  I wouldn't recommend standing in line for hours for it, but it's intriguing in spots.  Of course, I love going to exhibits that are the first, or last or largest or rarest of something, so that's part of the appeal for me.  Your mileage may vary.

A practical consideration: this is mostly in very low light.  You may find it a bit difficult to get your bearings or navigate, so be prepared for that.  There's really no problem with sound bleed-through, as most of the videos have no sound to speak of.

I liked the piece entitled "Reflecting Pool."  It seems to hang suspended in mid-air, which adds a sort of ghostly quality.  You see people's reflections in the pool, but not their actual bodies walking around.  I could see this forming the basis of a dramatization of one of E.F. Benson's spook stories, if he'd written one about a mysterious pool.

If you're thinking, that's all very well, but what I'm really looking for are videos of naked old people, you're in luck!  There's a pair (diptych?) of videos: one man and one woman.  Each is completely naked, mostly just standing and looking at the camera.  It's possible more happens in the part of the video I didn't see, but action doesn't really seem to be the point, so I doubt it.

The piece that I watched the longest was one of the artist holding his breath.  I kept thinking, "He'll exhale any second now," but it turns out, he can hold his breath a good long time.  When he does exhale, it's with a loud gasp, which is rather disconcerting.  I started at the sound, even though I was waiting for it.

The whole show is a bit off-putting in some way that I can't quite pinpoint.  A young visitor who was standing close by described it as "scary."  That's not exactly the word I would use (although it's the title of the post, so I did use it), but it's vaguely creepy.

Verdict: Spooky pool scenes, breathing and not breathing, plus naked seniors - what more can you ask?

Monday, April 17, 2017

You Learn Something New Every Exhibit

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through April 30, 2017

When I say this is at the Sackler, that's not quite right.  It's actually in the hallway between the Ripley's main concourse and the International Gallery.  You can enter from the Sackler, but I think that's a misleading location.  If you're in the Sackler, go down to the S3 level and before you walk into the Turquoise Mountain exhibit, turn left.

I know almost nothing about Kung Fu and about as much about hip hop culture, but the one has had a great influence on the other.  Bruce Lee, especially, is idolized in the world of hip hop and rap, and this interest has led two artists to incorporate his image into their work.

MC Yan's work is a series of blocks, with architectural details in the background, and Bruce Lee paintings over top.  The blocks fit together rather like a puzzle; they're both a painting and a 3-D work.

Fab 5 Freddy also uses Bruce Lee's image, reproducing a picture of him, with graffiti and self-portraits.  There is also the occasional scratch mark, as if a bear has come along and clawed the work.

I'm not sure what all of this means, but it's certainly outside my usual museum experience, so I'm happy to have my world expanded a bit.

Verdict: A good reminder that Asian art, broadly defined,  has influenced many cultures. A clever way for the Sackler to celebrate the opening of the NMAAHC.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Dance is the Thing

Where: American History Museum

When: through April 30, 2017

Before I talk about this small display at American History, let me just give you a word of advice.  DO NOT go to American History, Natural History or (I'm guessing) Air and Space until next week.  Just don't do it.

The line to get into American History was long; the only reason I was able to enter in under 15 minutes was because I didn't have a bag to be checked.  I was out yesterday and passed Natural History on my way to the Sackler, and the line was out the door and almost to 12th Street.  Since A&S is always packed, I'm sure it's a nightmare as well.  The combination of Passover, Easter, spring break and nice weather seems to have propelled everyone and his brother to the Mall.  If you need a museum fix, head to the Sackler or African Art.

And it's not just the crowds, it's the stepped-up security as well.  You have to empty your pockets, even if you have no bag, so it takes longer to actually enter.  And, of course, there are plenty of our fellow visitors who can't follow directions, so that adds to the wait.  Again, Sackler and African Art are the way to go - I suppose they'd have a look in a bag, but there's no metal detector, and I just sailed right in.

But, this post is about American History and its display case devoted to ballet, so let's get back to that.  I'm sure the curators were not thinking of politics when they set this up (or perhaps they were, I shouldn't make assumptions...), but this is a lovely reminder of the value of allowing immigrants into the United States and welcoming all talented people into the art world, whether they "look the part" or not.

Costumes of Misty Copeland (first African American woman to be named principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater), Marianna Tcherkassky (Russian/Japanese immigrant) and Violette Verdy (French immigrant) were on display.  Where would ballet be without immigrants?  Why shouldn't we see the best dancers, regardless of race or ethnicity?

Verdict: If you can get in, have a look at this gentle reminder that not all those who are different are dangerous.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Crowd in the Library!

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through April 14, 2017

For the first time ever, I encountered other people when I went to see an exhibit at the National Gallery Library.  Perhaps that was because the subject was Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who are/were far better known than most of the subjects of these exhibits, or perhaps this was a group of very thorough visitors, determined to see everything the National Gallery had to offer.  Whatever the reason, I'm glad I'm not the only one coming to see these displays; I have some experience with putting this sort of thing up, and it's quite disheartening when no one looks at the fruits of your labor.

Speaking of putting things up, that was the focus of the photographs.  Wrapping enormous things takes a lot of work, and wind damage can destroy everything in a few hours.  Whether you like these installations or not (and I can take them or leave them alone), you have to admire the resiliency that allows them to put in weeks of work, watch it get blown away in the storm and start over again.

Verdict: If you like having a look behind the curtain (no pun intended), this was worth stopping in to see.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Good Bye Johnny B. Goode

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through April 9, 2017

The National Portrait Gallery's "In Memoriam" section was up pretty much non-stop in 2016, and it seems as if 2017 will provide lots of subjects as well, sadly.  The most recent person to be so honored is Chuck Berry.  It's a great portrait - lots of color and action, just like the man himself.  I love the blue, orange and hot pink - invigorating and attention-grabbing.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

No Trip to the 3rd Floor is Wasted

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through April 2, 2017

I went to see Gene Davis: Hot Beat at the SAAM, and at least I got to see the wild and wonderful 3rd Floor.  As you can see from the picture, the floor, walls and ceiling are all patterned - no minimalism or austerity here.  Plus, that skylight is a beauty.  Good thing I was happy with this, as the show itself, well...

Davis painted stripes, some wide, some narrow, most colorful.  And I have nothing against colorful stripes, but is that really enough to get you a show at the Smithsonian?  Obviously, the answer is yes, but I just don't see that this is great art.  I'll grant you, it made me think of jazz and the piano, and if they'd had a sound track running, that would have been a great touch, but it just doesn't seem enough to make an artist.

Verdict: If colorful stripes are enough for you - this is a show I hope you didn't miss.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Note in Favor of the NEA

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through March 26, 2017

My apologies for my absence and the fact that I'm reviewing exhibits that have already closed.  I was under the weather last weekend and am only now getting back to blogging.

This was a fine display of photographs by Carl Van Vechten, who began making portraits in 1932.  He wanted to show the breadth of American culture and was proud of his depiction of African Americans.  His studio became a crossroads for those involved in the Harlem Renaissance.

These portraits were originally published with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, one of the cultural agencies under threat in the recently released Presidential budget.   This show serves as a reminder that the NEA does a great job of providing artists with the money they need to make their works known.  It would be wrong to put an end to our investment in American art.

Verdict: Another part of the Smithsonian's celebration of the opening of the African American Museum - a way to participate in the opening, even if you can't get tickets to see the museum itself.