Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Window on an "Invisible" World

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through June 4, 2017

This is one of those exhibits that was different than I thought it would be.  I knew it would be photographs, but I wasn't expecting the type of pictures on display or the intriguing nature of the photographer.  Just goes to show, you need to go to the show.

Horace Poolaw was a Native American living in Oklahoma, at a confluence of tribes, all pushed together by the federal government, who wanted them to give up their traditions and culture and acclimate into white America. He photographed his people as they truly were, keeping their culture alive while adopting some of white culture.  While outsiders came to see "authentic Indians," Poolaw recorded the lives of real native people.

Poolaw was not a professional photographer, in that he never made a living by his work, but he was trained by professionals and judged his own output against what he saw in Life magazine.  At the time of his death, he had not labeled most of his negatives, and he never had the money to print them.

Happily, the Horace Poolaw Photography Project at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma is seeking to remedy that situation.  The current display is the fruit of their labors, scanning the negatives and researching the people in the pictures.

This is in the large special exhibit space on the 3rd floor, and the set-up is really good.  Each photo has a lot of wall space, so you can focus on each image without other shots competing for your attention.  There are also cut outs in the dividers (see my photo above) that gave me the idea for the "window" description.

Poolaw's daughter, Linda Poolaw, said that her father never took these photographs in order to be remembered, but so that people would remember themselves.  I hope that both the people and their photographer can be remembered by those that see this exhibit.

Verdict: Fine show: both the artist and his subjects are engaging, and the design of the exhibit space supports the work.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In Living Color

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through June 4, 2017

Usually, when you look at sculpture, it's white.  Think of Winged Victory or the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo's David - all white.  The Della Robia family, had other ideas, more colorful ones.  Their sculpture is in blue, and green, and yellow and purple.  They developed a glazing technique that allowed them to create art that was beautiful then and is just as beautiful now.

How often have you looked at a painting and been told, "It would have been much more vibrant when it was painted."  I always feel frustrated when I hear this; I can appreciate the technique or the subject matter, but I'm not having the full experience.  With the Della Robias, you get it all.

Ironically, the great masterpiece on display is in white - Elizabeth and Mary greeting one another.  It really is a great work, worth a visit all on its own.  It was what I saw first, as I entered in the middle of the show.  This is my only complaint; the set-up is weird.  The beginning of the show is outside the garden court, in the hallway, and the rest of the show is off the main court in a series of rooms.  It makes for a disjointed presentation, and if you come up from the 7th street entrance, as I did, you start in the middle.

Another display I really liked was two versions of the same piece.  One Madonna and Child is owned by the National Gallery and the other is owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Putting the two side-by-side shows how you could customize your artwork to have just the piece you liked.  Personally,  I like the NGA's piece better; it's a simpler piece and feels less cluttered.

Verdict: Don't let the odd arrangement spoil the many pleasures of this show.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Two Bites of the Apple

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through June 4, 2017

This small exhibit is in what I call the "low-light alcove," a small nook close to the archives room and the One Life space.  I'm assuming the items displayed here are fragile, as it's quite dark.  When I read that this show featured daguerrotypes, I knew I was heading over here.  I'll admit, my eyesight is not the sharpest, so it can be challenging to really look at what's on offer.  Better to see them dimly, however, than not at all!

There are seven people pictured here, each with two daguerrotypes.  The point of the show is that although a picture may be worth a thousand words, two pictures are worth even more.  When we get one image in our minds, it can become fixed as "the" way a person looked.  This is especially true of historical figures who lived long before modern photography or television (let alone smartphones or the Internet).  Even those who posed for daguerrotypes (which were lightning fast compared to a painted portrait) look wooden and dour, mostly because they had to hold still for so long while the picture was taken.

This show offers an opportunity to see two glimpses of its subjects.  With some,  the advances in technology mean that although they look pretty grim in one picture, they look more natural in a second, taken years later.   I used to think, "Their lives must have been awful" when I looked at old photos; now I have a better appreciation for the fact that perhaps technology just hadn't caught up to their smiles.

Verdict: Worth a look (or two?), and easy to combine with a trip to see the Babe Ruth display or the archives' look at cats before the Internet.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Our Robot Overlords

Where: American History Museum

When: through May 21, 2017

Evil hackers are everywhere, and DARPA (a defense group that was one of the creators of the internet) hosted a competition in 2014 to find out if computers could essentially protect themselves from harm.

Several groups set up their computers with anti-hacking code, and then stood back and watched them get attacked by malicious software.  The winner of the competition is the computer pictured here, called Mayhem.  I especially liked the head hanging from the chain in the middle.

You'll notice that there's a monitor to the left - that's playing a video of the competition, which you really need to watch in order to understand why you're looking at this thing.

For the sake of human job security, I'm happy to say that Mayhem lost out to human coders later in the contest.

Verdict: Worth a few minutes of your next trip to American History.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Caliph of Clout

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 21, 2017

This is the latest in the "One Life" series - a one-room examination of a famous American.  I've been mostly positive in my reviews of previous shows, and I liked this one as well.

Babe Ruth was the first really big baseball celebrity.  He was larger than life, both on and off the field.  This show covers his life, his  career and his legacy - nicely done in a small space.

Only 53 when he died, Ruth is, even today, one of the sport's most recognizable players, and his accomplishments are impressive, even if his biggest records have been broken.

I noticed a "curatorial statement" included in the wall notes - we need more of these!

Verdict: Another fine offering in an informative series.

Monday, May 1, 2017

All About Color

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through May 15, 2017

This is a display on the lower level of the museum, put up by the Smithsonian Libraries.  These are usually in two facing display cases, on either side of the hallway between the restaurant and the gift shop.  Amidst all the hustle and bustle, they usually don't attract a lot of attention, and I have the exhibit to myself.

Color is scientific and artistic, historical and cultural - a little something for everyone.  We have Sir Isaac Newton to thank for the color spectrum, a building block of scientific achievement.  Did you know that peacock tail feathers have no color pigment?  Their appearance is a trick of the light.  That fabulous red-orange Fiestaware color that you don't see anymore?  It contained uranium oxide, which
made it slightly radioactive.  Learn all this and more!

Verdict: A small informative display, worth a look as you head off to one of the other exhibits.