Thursday, April 28, 2011


REVIEW:  Blinky Palermo RETROSPECTIVE 1964-1977 (Hirshhorn Museum through May 15th)
By:  Samuel Scharf

    Upon entering the Blinky Palermo exhibition at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum here in Washington DC, I really didn’t know what to expect.  I have little knowledge of “Palermo’s” career if not more than I know his name is made up.  His work is at this point little more to me than every other minimalist color painter of the New York juggernaut production of dime a dozen minimalist color painters.  Walking into the exhibition I may not have known (what) to expect to see but that I did expect it to be predictable.
    A little background on Blinky is that he was born Peter Schwarze in Germany 1943.  He passed early in his life at 34 right when his work began to settle into the scope of relevancy.  He was quite a interesting figure who made was dubbed Blinky Palermo after looking like the boxing promoter who “owned” Sunny Liston.  Blinky was also a student of Joseph Beuys which may have contributed more to his personality than his artwork but we will soon see.
    As with most retrospectives the second floor of the museum is layed out in a chronological fashion.  When entering the early work, one can pretty much assume what they will see throughout the show.  A mixture of Elsworth Kelly and Joseph Albers was soon to come.  This premonition wasn’t far from the truth but with some interesting twists and turns along the way.  Initially there were heavy worked panels with marks of a certain expression I couldn’t put my finger on.  “Blue Bridge” especially was a work that really caught my eye for being so compositionally simple yet technically proficient.  I could see the work and strokes he put into that relatively elementary bi-plane relationship between the red and blue fields.  This initial room led into a opening of materials immediately as if there was no other way for Palermo to explore.  So simple yet so effective was a red totem work on a 30 degree tilt with a handmade metallic frame, I stopped in my tracks, two rooms into a show I “expected” nothing from.    This was it and I was hooked for the rest of the show, even with my doubts lingering, I knew that the show would provide.  Well done here to the curation and layout! 
    Materials, materials and more different materials soon began to hold my interests.  This artist painted on damn near everything from clothing stretched as canvas to steel painted and looking like wood.  Currently this wouldn’t stretch the imagination of a contemporary practice but then in the late 60’s, this work was surely pushing new boundaries.  Even though Palermo is often overlooked and died tragically young, by the middle of the exhibition its clear to find his place in the art cannon.  With a mixture of the color knowledge of Albers, tragic simplicity of Elsworth and a certain playfulness of Beuys, this guy really did his thing when he did it.  The exhibition lends itself to a certain amount of historical art knowledge, but then again a viewer owes it to oneself when entering a “historical” modern house of art.  The opening text and pamphlet for the show did more than enough to place Palermo in context.  After this introduction I really did feel like his explorations in materials and display were somewhat exciting to an artist (myself) that has seen many different exhibitions of modern art.  Palermo's main concerns were with shape, color, a real play in materials and form foremost.  Within this scope, regardless of my expectations I did find myself pleasantly surprise walking through what’s now the kicker of the show. 
    Entering the last 3/4s of the show the viewer hits two back to back large galleries with a scope of work large enough for most living artists with 40 years of production.  Beginning with a display of more of his larger works, the first large gallery houses many tri color canvases that show a clear knowledge of color relationships.  These works would surely lend themselves to any average collector wanting to fill a spot in their constructivism/minimalist collections.  Here I was shrunk in size by canvas’s all easily over 5x5 feet and most larger.  Along the room was a mixture of simple steel works, these large canvas’s and an intense amount of different colorings.  This pushed me eagerly into the next room which I did not see what was coming before it hit me.
    Here in the next large gallery was a total refinement of his color and theory into a very simple display of near forty works.  People of New York City (1976), a fifteen-part work comprising thirty-nine aluminum panels painted in variations of cadmium red, cadmium yellow, and black really stopped me to the point of sitting on one of the provided benches.  I was challenged to sit wonder and figure why?  It seemed to me clear the relationships between the color changes and simple three part relationship.  What I couldn’t figure was why did a room with so many works feel so empty?  Thus his title People of New York City really made sense.  It was clear that they were all different but really in the end they were all empty and all the same.  The red wasn’t red an upon further examination it was more of a magenta next to the yellow made a red, and that black was actually a dark dark blue.  Impressive simplicity and a highly effective work when shown all together in a room such as the Hirshhorn put together for the show. 
    Leaving this room you enter the last works of his career and it showed a scope of some revisiting and mostly reiteration of the same note.  Except for one work which was blue over white above a chopped 3 part canvas of green and black.  That was it his last piece and you could see how his influence was soon to produce very relevant Rothko esq color field paintings had he not died. 
    My only gripe with the show was the labeling for the titles were trivialized off to the side of the rooms stacked awkwardly and hard to place.  This seemed a serious mistake because his titles were often playful and very reflective of his nature.  Though as for most minimalist work, they would have distracted from the work itself should they have been next to the works. 
    If you venture to see this show, please keep a low key expectation and take the work for what it was at the time it was.  Blinky Palermo is a very romantic example of the time in NYC (late 60’s, early 70’s) when this German born artist could roll into town, grab some brushes, hang out with Richter, and have a career blossom under ten years.
     Its nice to see him get such a strong retrospective but as for most artists, its far to late as the Hirshhorn uncovers yet again (after the Truitt and Klein) retrospective exhibitions much over due after 30 years.  But this was all thanks to GUCCI and their funding of the current exhibition which ran all over the country to show Palermo's importance from a collection surely housing some of his best works.
    A highlight to close on was my favorite work hands down and you can easily some the show up with.  About halfway through the exhibition is a work:
    Graue Scheibe [Gray Disk], 1970 | Oil paint and synthetic paint on cotton on wood-core plywood. 5 3/4 x 10 1/2 x 3/4 inches. Collection Olga Lina and Stella Liza Knoebel. 
     Walk right to that piece, inspect and see what Palermo was really all about.  I found this piece amazing in its “history” ever so present with edges beaten down to the other colors under the grey and simple in its minuscule strength.  Somewhat like the sucker punch I received from an exhibition that I had no “expectation” on what to expect.


Adam Hager
Calder’s Portraits: a new Language

I have to admit that I was caught a bit off-guard when I first entered the Calder exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. I have such an engrained idea of his mobiles that I did not expect to see such an enlightening view into one of Calder’s entirely different studio practices. Accompanied by the portrait gallery’s own photographs, the wire portraits bore striking resemblances to Calder’s subjects, and through his satirical style, Calder raised the question of the line between fine-art portraiture verses caricature.

Walking through the exhibit, we get to see Calder’s portrayals of entertainment, sports, and art-world figures, including Josephine Baker, Jimmy Durante, Babe Ruth, and Charles Lindbergh. We also see his friends and colleagues Marion Greenwood, Fernand Léger, and Saul Steinberg. The people Calder chose to portray were those that affected his life directly and because of Calder’s passionate sense of play and his buoyant personality, he continued to challenge the traditionally accepted sense of ‘sculpture’ throughout his entire career. Beginning with his circus figures and leading into his portraiture, he eventually laid the groundwork for kinetic sculpture that we associate the most with Calder’s famous name.

Perhaps, though, I entered the exhibit with a chip on my shoulder because Calder’s mobiles are so well known that they have become cliché, and as a result, I was reluctant to see Calder’s portraits as anything more than three-dimensional illustrations. However, despite my skepticism, the very first portrait I encountered of Calvin Coolidge broke down my resistance, and I was immediately affected by the beauty in these objects.

Using single wires to draw lines in space, Calder captures Calvin’s essential qualities such as his large ears, cleft chin, hooked nose, and beady eyes in a way that is so gesturally accurate that I expected the portrait to start making faces at me. But it is not only the accuracy that holds my attention – it is also the humor Calder creates in the exaggerated features. These characteristics were also demonstrated extremely well in the Jimmy Durante portrait, however it is the exaggeration that is the danger point where the portraits could almost teeter into the realm of caricature, and though I personally do not believe the portraits step over that invisible line, I think there is one brief yet important point to be made before moving on.

The point I am eluding to is that I do not think Calder would have argued one for the other, and once arriving at this point, we are free to enjoy these objects for the beautiful things that they are rather than getting caught up in an argument that really would not have interested the artist nor altered the work. I believe that the issue of portrait verses caricature is more important to critics and the ‘art world’ than it is to the actual work. The pieces have an inherent liveliness that allows them to stand on their own, and according to what I have read about Calder’s light-heartedness, I think he would have shrugged off this argument and continued working on the next portrait without a care in the world.

While not as important as the work itself, the museum deserves some recognition for how well the work is displayed. Some of the portraits are suspended in vitrines and lit from above. In these displays, the line quality of the wire is translated clearly and sharply, and as the pieces rotate, they almost seem to float in the air while the shadows dance beneath them. Other portraits such as the Edgar Varese piece was suspended from the ceiling, and the shadows were cast on the wall behind as well as on the floor. In both cases, the result was dramatic and very effective.

The Edgar Varese piece, in particular, stood out because of its personal nature. Apparently, Edgar used to sit with Calder and watch him as he worked. In turn, Calder often listened to Edgar’s music compositions. The two men complimented each other well because they both were becoming known for their unconventional styles in material and sound. As we move through the rest of the exhibit, we encounter the portraits of entertainers and sports figures, but I mention the personal nature of the Varese piece because the portraits Calder made of his friends and colleagues had a much more heartfelt essence making them more successful. For example, Calder’s depiction of Babe Ruth was more superficial, and although I established the unimportance of caricature verses fine-art portraiture in Calder’s case, the superficiality of the Babe Ruth piece veered it more into the direction of caricature than portraiture.

The portraits of Calder’s artist and critic friends/colleagues seemed also to draw attention to his sense of humor and sarcasm. I noticed that all of these pieces were made and displayed in a static fashion standing from a stationary pedestal. I felt that the gesture could only have been a deliberate attempt to poke fun at taking themselves too seriously by being displayed as their own art objects.

My favorite piece in the show was on display in this same area of the exhibit, but unfortunately we only get to see it in photographic format. Calder did a wire portrait of his close friend, artist, and critic Fernand Léger, and though it is not the actual wire portrait on display, it is a photograph of Léger holding the piece across from his face as though looking into a mirror. The humor is inescapable, but beyond that, the portrait is a perfect example of Calder’s expert hand. We can see the intense control he has in getting the subtle yet precise bends and curves in achieving facial features that perfectly describe the subjects being depicted. He always includes just enough visual information to capture a personality, and he often seems able to accomplish this task with simply a few well-formed lines. He retains only the essentials to create the minimum gestural information while at the same time attaining the maximum amount of expressiveness.

We see Calder’s ever present sense of play juxtaposed with his incredible ability to capture a person’s essential qualities in this exhibition. I am always impacted when I see such a large quantity of work and know that it is but a small fraction of how much the artist actually produced. More importantly, though, the impact is always greater when the quantity of work is matched by its quality. Calder’s unique ability to hang onto his childlike nature is what gives his portraits so much of their power, and I greatly admire his artistic pursuit. The simplification Calder employs to arrive at such sophisticated products is best described by him when he said in a very minimal Calder-like fashion:

“Where you have features you draw them. Where there aren’t any, you let go.”

Monday, April 4, 2011


Guillermo Kuitca: Everything—Paintings and Works on Paper,
An Artist’s Quiet Take on Mass Murder
As the title of this exhibition implies, “Everything,” presented Guillermo Kuitca’s expansive and ambitious oeuvre over a 30-year period. Masterfully installed on one full floor of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, this mid-life career retrospective for the Argentine artist, recently completed its United States tour on January 16th, with simultaneous presentations of the artist’s work internationally.
Kuitca, a painter, takes on the daunting task of shedding light on global holocausts. His early works deal directly with the AIDS epidemic at its beginnings. Later works relate to his own roots as a Russian Jew and the persecution his grandparents escaped. Simultaneously the artist created works that make reference to and in some cases memorialize The Disappeared of Argentina’s “Dirty Little War.” Using iconic references, a personal symbolism, as well as a variety of media and approaches, Kuitca takes on these difficult topics with a poetic restraint. Often, what is not stated visually is implied in these poetic spaces, with the content filled in by the viewer. Voids and omissions on the canvas become the point. Conversely, erasures, impressions and imprints leave a strong mark and pack a psychological wallop.
The artist creates works that range from intimate, simple drawings on paper, to large-scale wall pieces in acrylic and others in mixed media that spill over into installation. As ambitious as his explorations of media have been (including the development of a new process in his deconstructed “floater” works on paper), his content-driven themes afford the viewer numerous points of entry into his oeuvre. His use of materials underscores these themes.
Kuitca’s first working experiences in the theater influence his approaches to his work and the way themes are conveyed. He is an artist concerned with contemporary and historical tragedy, genocide in fact, augmented by his allusion to and inspiration taken from films, plays, and opera.
Terminal (2000), at the entrance to the exhibition, is a wall-sized, grey-scale acrylic reproduction of an airport baggage claim luggage belt with entrance and exit for luggage blocked off. The belt is void of bags and the space around it is empty of arriving passengers. We have entered the exhibition at a significant point to the artist—the intersection of the public and the private. By contrast, on an adjacent wall, a small more intimate acrylic painting on cardboard presented us with an image of a single bed. Nadie Olvida Nada (Nobody Forgets Nothing (1982). This piece also commands an entire museum wall in its simplicity, and the intimate associations with the image of a bed provide a perfect contrapuntal balance to the image of the very public luggage belt. The empty bed is depicted on a jaundiced, yellow background with a skewed perspective that evoked a coffin-shaped form.
Kuitca’s concerns regarding the AIDS epidemic, and for the genocide that occurred under Argentina’s dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, appear at regular intervals in his work from the 1980s. Like his fellow countrymen and artist Doris Salcedo, who also memorialized “Los Despardes” in her sculptures, Kuitca, meticulously enumerates the 30,000 abducted persons during this period in Del al 30,000. This subtle numbering motif recurs in his later works, that are based on public architectural plans. These introductory works resonate with more than a sense of melancholy, but with a sense of tragedy that carries through the exhibition.
In the late ‘80’s, Kuitca painted large dramatic canvases evoking his Russian, Jewish roots. The Russian Jewish flight at the turn of the twentieth century is reveled in his work Odessa. An early, mixed media “map painting”, this monochromatic work traces the main flight route Russian Jews took out of Odessa. The artist’s grandparents were part of that exodus.
His large red acrylic paintings from the mid-eighties both titled El Mar Dulce (The Sweet Sea), are heavily worked canvases. Scraped, manipulated amorphous surfaces depict enormous and dramatically ambiguous interior spaces, with scenes that include naked figures staring in a mirror, two figures copulating in a small claustrophobic space, and a female sleeping in the foreground. Stairs that lead to nowhere with rooms as cul de sacs, and no exits, evoke Kafka and Beckett, both documented sources for the artist. The iconographic image of the tumbling baby carriage from the famous film Battleship Potempkin is sketchily represented as a projection, with deconstructed stairs and trampled bodies.
A later version, gives way to a space void of human figures, only vestiges of human activity remain—toppled chairs and lamps, and empty beds remain in the foreground. The projected image of the baby carriage and stairs fades from view, never to reappear in the exhibition. Kuitca’s treatment of interior space includes blackened exit doors and doorways. Like Sartre’s play, there is no exit.
Kuitca, became unsatisfied with the canvas, and like many artists turned to non-traditional materials. The artist jumps off the canvas and unto mattresses as a ground. As his annihilation of the figure becomes complete, he paradoxically employs a medium that is an intimate and daily space of human beings with their imprints. Here, he creates works by superimposing maps (those public indicators of space) onto them. These maps are often convoluted, with routes based in reality but sometimes not. They often return to their starting points creating an endless loop of absurd geography. The viewer when caught in this cycle of searching for a point of reference never really finds one. The experience is not dissimilar to viewing Ionesco’s Bald Sorprano where the audience is destined to view the play over and over.
These works capture our need to orient ourselves, but the routes are skewed. Kuitca plays with his audience, while collapsing standard geographic boundaries. He has an interest in fluid notions of space, while grounding us on an everyday familiar object imprinted with the ethereal dents of the human form. We are here today, gone tomorrow.
“Everything” from which the exhibition takes its name, is a massive, repetitive work of four panels that seems best viewed up close and far away. The artist states that in the mapping schema presented, the roads lead from Dallas, TX to Dallas, TX. You can get lost in the routes. Stepping back, outlines of a blindfolded figure appear with arms behind its back. This large form repeats four times across each panel towards the bottom. This amorphous image underscores the notion of the disappeared, or ghostly.
In a later series of works, Kuitca riffs on Diderot’s “Encyclopedie,” but replaces definition and categorization with his fusion of world maps and melting of geographical borders. The artist is no stranger to finding inspiration in cultural icons and heavy hitters like Wagner. Still, these huge ambitious pieces are not his best. and mattresses as “new” media aside, it is in his Tablada Suite from 1991 and 1992 where the artist evokes the most humanity and is at his most poetic. In these four gallery-sized works, one on each wall, the artist subtlety, yet in great detail, depicts in graphite and acrylic the architectural plans of large public spaces—a Jewish cemetery in Buenos Aires, a prison, a hospital, and a stadium. Drawn with clinical and technical precisio, these works reference public institutions down to the institutional-colored paints he uses in the compositions.
Every prison cell, cemetery plot, seat, bed and chair is referenced. Again, figures are conspicuously absent, but their presence or existences are most clearly implied by these public plans, and designs for their anticipated lives, exits, and deaths. An overwhelming sense of melancholy for humanity is present in these poetic and obsessively drawn works.
In his Teatro Rojo works on paper and paintings that use theater seating charts, the artist developed a unique process of deconstructing interior architectural plans, creating forms that melt before our eyes. Here the viewer also has a new perspective. We look out from the stage instead of at it and the theaters are empty. In this purposeful reversal of perspective by the artist, we are implied, and unseen.
The artist continually plays quietly, yet dramatically with our location and our perspectives, inside and outside of the artworks before us. We are disoriented. Figures appear and disappear, humanity is implied, sometimes memorialized, and other times annihilated. We the viewers are part of the drama and witness to it. How easily we can be removed from the picture of humanity, how easily persons are removed by societal and political atrocities that come in a variety of forms—sometimes quietly in the night and most often at the onset, unreported. Kuitca’s works help us to remember.


Robert Irwin – Gypsy Switch
Robert Irwin’s show at the Corcoran Museum consists of one piece entitled: Gypsy Switch. I would bore you with the physical details of this work because they are precisely the reason why this piece, despite endeavoring towards a transformative visual goal, falls short. Robert Irwin has spent a career creating work that redefines spaces and our ability to interact with them visually. Much of his recent portfolio has been on a larger scale and addressed architectural construction both in buildings and landscapes and has spanned a great variety of media. Gypsy Switch is a break from these works as it is much more referential to painting in size and composition. However, Gypsy Switch is no exception in the way it still pertains to his investigations into human perception.
The work is part of a larger collection of pieces all created in 2010 built from the same fluorescent bulbs and designed in a similar fashion. Many of them are currently on display at The Pace Gallery in New York City in a show titled “Way Out West” but Gypsy Switch bears some noteworthy differences to this other collection. The pieces in The Pace Gallery show are colored vibrantly, lit minimally by exterior lighting, and hung in such a way that they dominate and fill the wall. They invite the viewers gaze with their warmth and redefine the spaces they occupy with their own light.
In contrast, Gypsy Switch has a much cooler palette. All of the bulbs are cold whites, muted grays, sickly greens, or black with the exception of one unlit red bulb at its center. This serves to create a more ethereal and distant affect, one that does not draw in the viewer so much as seem to indicate a sort of industrial aloofness that holds one at arm’s length. If the viewer were to brave this sterile barrier and venture closer they would be grounded by the familiarity of the materials present despite the fact they do not appear in the material list for the piece. Irwin lists the following as the media comprising the work: light, shadow, reflection, and color. However it is difficult for the viewer to interact and fixate solely on these basic components or perceptual tenets when the recognizable materiality of the piece dominates the room.
The fact that the room was lit overhead also served to distract and detract from the power of the piece. Any environment changing effects were negated by the harsh focused light from spotlights which stood at odds with the softer cooler glow of the fluorescent bulbs. The high ceilings also made the piece feel dwarfed which restricted its ability to influence and impact its surroundings.
The overall form of the piece is certainly one of its most powerful elements. Forming a larger rectangle through the arrangement of vertical oriented bulbs, the viewer is forced to address the work as they would a painting, head on. The piece does not reward a diagonal view and this is reinforced by the symmetrical arrangement of the fluorescent lights. As they mirror themselves outward from the central red bulb the layout rewards a viewer whose binocular vision is centered on the work. However here the scale becomes problematic as you are required to get rather close to the piece to allow it to completely fill your field of vision and it is not until this point that Gypsy Switch begins to exert any power to transform your surroundings. But as you close on the piece and it begins to fill your world the details and manner of its construction powerfully reassert themselves, pulling you away from a moment of perceptual discovery.
Though the piece is rectangular in composition its edges blur slightly as your eye moves between lit and unlit bulbs. The varying of the boundaries starts to confuse the eye as it moves across the piece, but there are too many opportunities for the viewer to catch themselves on something solid or referential. The unlit bulbs and empty sockets provide this effect steadily to the detriment of the work. The existing light emanating from the piece is not bright or dominant enough to transform the space around it completely and so the viewer remains stuck addressing the work through a formal and object oriented vocabulary.
Sadly it seems that the work is best viewed in photographs. Here you can readily divorce yourself from the distracting details of the objects present in the piece. Unable to approach the work, you must interpret only the viewpoint presented which displays the piece at its best. Camera captured images also serve to exaggerate the soft unfocused light that emanates from the piece and makes it far more captivating and nuanced removing the exacting details that detract from its airy qualities.
But even as a photograph the work does not achieve its transformative goal. Locked into a single viewpoint and held at a distance the work does not alter your perception of your surroundings as it becomes completely contained by the frame of the image. It no longer interacts with your perceptual world and becomes only an object to be viewed entirely separate from oneself. In a photograph, it carries the potential of transmuting the space around it, but it is a space that cannot be accessed or interacted with by the viewer because it exists only in the image. This frozen illusion of possibility presents an initial intrigue to the piece that, similar to the actual work, is lost when one tries to investigate it more closely.
Rather than encouraging some sort of visual phenomenological impulse the piece instead grounds the viewer in the even beauty of symmetry, soft light, and linear form. There is no denying the visual complexity that Irwin has generated so elegantly with such simple tools but the work does not achieve a transformative capacity and is stunted by the room it is displayed in. Gypsy Switch does not transform the world it inhabits as it is grounded by earthly materiality and association. This prevents it from becoming a purely perceptual experience and locks the viewer in a spectacle of material connections.


Vantage Point Review
The current exhibit, Vantage Point, at the National Museum of the American Indian displays work by 25 contemporary Native American artists ranging a spectrum of media from drawing and painting to installation and video. The framework for the exhibit is meant to be organized into Personal Memory and Identity, History and the Contemporary Urban Experience, Landscape and Place, and Cultural Memory and Persistence, yet one of the first things I noticed as I made my way through the show was how these categories all blurred into one broad history lesson which made the subtly different labels unnecessary. Perhaps having an educational agenda for an “art” show is acceptable when understanding that this museum’s primary mission is to educate about and preserve American Indian culture. However, except for the common thread that all the work included in the exhibit was made by American Indians, most of it would not be thought of as meaningful contemporary artwork in any other venue other than that which is dedicated to the historical preservation of their culture, and while this museum is the perfect place to draw attention to the historical as well as current injustices brought upon American Indians, I think only a few of the works presented can stand on artistic merit outside of this context.
For instance, there are some abstract paintings in the show by Native Americans such as Mario Martinez, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, and Margarete Bagshaw. Shubert gave us a ‘pretty picture’ called Medicine Wheel-Nebula-Glass Bottom Boat. It has some beautiful colors with some flowery shapes and sparkles that I can imagine would look very good above someone’s couch. I think I saw something like it at a craft fair once. Then there is Bagshaw’s painting, Sky Rise Dreams. It is a well laid out geometric abstract painting with muted colors combined with a mix of play on perspective and patterns. Drawing from the title and the subject matter, Bagshaw clearly intends to visually describe the rise of cities, roads, and our general concrete world as it pertains to the essential theft of her ancestors’ land and abuse of the earth. While I don’t wish to be insensitive to the intended message, I would have enjoyed this painting more if it were untitled and in a gallery not as conducive to such a quick read.
Moving on to Martinez’s Yaqui Flashback II, I enjoy it more than the paintings mentioned above because it begins to capture an intentional ambiguity which allows my imagination to take charge and bounce around within the context of the piece. I read nature as well as personal influences while seeing some other subdued cultural references. Even with the title which points directly at the artist’s ancestry, the painting still allows the viewer to browse through their own personal experience referentially and aesthetically. In the end, we can arrive at our own layers of meaning outside of the artist’s specificities.
The artists Rick Bartow and Truman Lowe both presented sculptural work. Bartow’s, The Responsibility of Raising a Child, is a traditionally cast bronze piece which is totem-like in nature and contains various American Indian mythological animal references. I was enticed by this piece because of my own sculptural influences and my interests in Native American legends, and although it appeals to those interests, it doesn’t get much further. It’s a piece that can be walked around and taken in without too much thought, and then, the viewer is free to dismiss it and move on to whatever comes next.
Lowes work, however, is less one-dimensional, and while his piece entitled Wah-Du-Sheh (Bundle) is made from materials traditionally used in American Indian culture to build shelters, weapons, vessels, etc., his title as well as his suspended forms recall these characteristics without being so literal as to read like an equation. I spent some time with this piece and studied the leather, wood, and paper materials, and though the craft and presentation is what drew me to the piece, it was the subtleties in shape and form as well as the contrast between violence and gracefulness that kept me involved. I can very easily imagine this piece being successful on display in a venue such as the Phillip’s Collection or at the Corcoran in terms of maintaining layered meaning with specific references and intentions.
Shelley Niro and Kent Monkman are a couple of photographers displaying work in the show. Niro’s intent in La Pieta is described as addressing the human and environmental tolls of armed, the displacement of her native people, and the cleansing and regenerative power of water. What we see is a series of beautiful photographs (a combination of color prints and black and whites) bordered by bead and fabric work which is intended to symbolize bloodshed, war, remembrance, and renewal. I think Niro’s intent to display war, violence, healing (both metaphorically and literally), and the sadness of being driven from one’s home is undermined by the seduction of capturing clear, pristine, detailed images with a streamlined presentation. The work could have been executed in a number of ways that still point to her noble intent without being so literal as to trap the work under its own weight. Instead, the work falls apart and fails by its own beauty.
Monkman displays dramatically different work than Niro by literally ‘dramatizing’ the photographs and by successfully executing his intent while also posing questions to society as a whole rather than simply as it applies to the American Indian. The Emergence of a Legend, a series of faux-antique photographs depicting Monkman’s alter ego, Miss Chief Shares Eagle Testicle (wordplay on ‘mischief’ and ‘egotistical’) in various guises, including as a performer in Wild West and vaudeville shows and as an actress in silent films, confronts the history of Indians performing for non-Indians. Monkman employs his flamboyant character, dressed in platform shoes, floor-length loincloth and elaborate feather headdress, as he calls attention to longstanding concerns such as the representation and misrepresentation of Indians in popular culture. Drawing inspiration also from broader contemporary culture, these staged photographs make reference to issues of femininity vs. masculinity, youth rebellion, and urbanization. I am glad to see that Monkman pays attention to the array of issues encompassing not only the American Indian but also contemporary American culture in general. In so doing, the work doesn’t limit itself to an exercise in Native American history but can, instead, stand alone outside of this particular setting.
Work such as Monkman’s photographs, Lowe’s Wah-du-Sheh, and a few other saving graces make Vantage point worth going to see, but while the exhibit has merit in presenting current views about the history of the American Indian, it accomplishes little else. This singular agenda is acceptable if one’s intention for seeing the show is educational in nature, but I realized that I wasn’t looking at ‘art’ made by American Indians. More than anything, the presentation revolves around work about Native American history which doesn’t require that one is or isn’t an American Indian. While the show did have its good points, it could have been described more accurately as a visual history lesson.


Washington Color and Light at The Corcoran Gallery
The Corcoran Gallery of Art has long supported DC-based artists interested in light and color, having shown their work in the past (“Washington Color Painters”, 1965) and having hired several of them as teachers. This exhibition demonstrates that allegiance while providing a historical context for the paintings. The question is, why this exhibition now and does this body of work as presented give the viewer adequate information about the artists’ inspiration, intent, sources, and motivation?
While the show is supposedly thematically arranged, some galleries are mini-solo shows that interrupted my ability to sustain an approach based on theme and therefore my train of thought. “Soak and Stain Painting”, the theme of the first room, includes work by artists working in the 50s along with their followers. Oddly, while most of the paintings demonstrate the theme of soaking and staining by exhibiting just that, the two at the entry to this room—by Alma Thomas and Jacob Kainen—are paintings that are not stained but obviously painted onto their surfaces with a reasonable amount of thickness. (I suspect these were an afterthought when the two small entry walls had nothing on them.)
The text discussing Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland’s visit to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio and their learning her staining technique is an excellent educational tool and introduction to this section, but we could have used more information. Were there documents supporting these visits—letters, photographs, for example, that would emphasize more this very important interchange? Was it just the process they imitated or was there a more conceptual motivation behind the staining technique? If you were a viewer interested in the process, for artists and non-artists alike, the discussion of the artists’ using Magma (a fast-drying acrylic invented in 1947) mixed with turpentine or spirits, opened eyes to its staining potential. The text also highlighted some artists’ twisted and tilted canvases to achieve certain effects. We see this in Louis’s striped painting and Sam Gilliam’s unframed draped canvas. The stripes in the Louis piece demonstrate pronounced visual vibrations that one might expect in an Albers piece. It is a pleasant surprise here. Another potent observation is engendered by Sam Gilliam’s framed piece. Folded and incorporating noticeably dragged paint, it implies a non-conscious anticipation of an artist like Gerhard Richter who is known for his dragged-paint abstract paintings. It would have been valuable for the curator(s) to draw some parallels to more recent art early in the show. Ed McGowin’s two more contemporary pieces in this gallery have little or nothing to do with soaking or staining. His bi-level Plexiglas-over-wood paintings make patterns that change as the viewer moves from side to side in front of them. Probably more than any other works in the show, they introduce an element of implied kinetics, so they could have been placed closer to Davis or even Truitt, where colors visually vibrate.
The second room, entitled “Hard Edge – Pure Reduction” includes such notables as Kenneth Noland (considered one of the founders of the Washington Color School), Mehring, Rockne Krebs, Gene Davis, Paul Reed, and Anne Truitt (whose work was recently featured in a solo show at the Hirschhorn Museum).
The text next to one of Noland’s is a strange Greenbergian statement (which I cannot agree to) that reads, “Evidence of the artist’s hand is almost entirely eliminated”). Is evidence of the artist’s hand ever eliminated? Even Judd’s boxes are only Judd’s boxes, made by Judd. Anne Truitt’s colored, large distilled 3-D towers are put next to an early Agnes Martin-esque pencil and acrylic drawing on canvas and this visual association is a juxtaposition that provokes thinking about the evolution of her work. One wonders why more of these associations weren’t made and elucidated in wall texts for other artists whose early and later works were both exhibited. Speaking of texts, this room has texts about the artists’ attendance at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, its role as a substitute for the Bauhaus and particularly Noland’s relationship with Josef Albers. I question why the Albers painting did not appear here and only much later in the show. Rockne Krebs’s 3-D Plexiglas and painted structure adds only a bit of interest in relation to the other works in the gallery. On the other hand, Paul Reed’s “In and Out B” shows overlapping stripes to create interesting visual disjunctions and color that is both attractive and jarring at the same time.
The next room, which has no theme, is devoted to Gene Davis’s work and it is fascinating to see his evolution from an abstract expressionist painter to one that worked so exclusively in painted stripes. This time the curator got it right. And including the artist’s quote with instructions is another good idea. Davis said. ”Enter my paintings by looking at one color and see how it operates in the work”. This reminded me, as a former museum educator, that it would have been especially helpful, especially for school groups, to have a study guide or brochure to carry and to encourage thinking about pertinent questions raised by the works.
The next room houses Thomas Downing’s paintings of arrangements of circles. These are cheerful but not all that engaging. One can see Downings’ relationship to Mehring, with whom he shared a studio, but Mehring’s work, to my liking, is so much more sensitive. Wall texts here add little to the experience.
The room called “ Color Connections” exhibits artists (not Washington artists) who investigate uses of color (throw, flick, pour, layer, scrape) and other concerns related to abstraction, the shape of the canvas, etc. There is no thorough explanation as to how or why this group was assembled and if or how they had direct or indirect relationships with the Washington Color School artists.
Frank Stella is represented with an angular painted aluminum wall structure, “Batafogo II”, 1975, wherein paint and the surface moves into the viewer’s space blurring the lines between painting and sculpture. It is tantalizing to see where he took his interest in color, but we are not told how the Washington Color School can be credited with this interest.
No exhibition about color would be complete without an Albers “Homage to the Square” this one from 1956. As alluded to earlier, it should have been shown earlier near the text about Black Mountain College. Still, the wall text about Albers and the Bauhaus is valuable for those not familiar with its history. An interesting comparison at this point is Albers’ comment about color having no emotional appeal vs. Anne Truitt’s statements to the contrary. For a slightly different take on stains, runs and splatters, Sam Francis’s Untitled work of 1974 is a prime example of personal interpretation over replication of Color School technique/approach. Likewise Jules Olitski’s “Pink Alert”, 1966, shows the influence of Morris Louis’s poured stripes, but Olitski paints and places them only at the perimeter and only on the sides and bottom of the canvas. These two have a real visual “connect” to the Washington School painters. On the other hand, Larry Poons’s “Seel”, 1981, has a paint surface that moves into three dimensions. The paint is ultra-thick making for a juicy, explosive surface, and because of its emphasis on texture over color, this piece feels more aligned to Pollack than to the Washington Color School. This work could have been omitted.
Frankenthaler's work appears near the end of this room, and given her influence and importance to the Color School artists, one wonders why her work was not shown closer to the beginning of the show. This very distilled green and brown poured paint piece, “Hurricane Flag”, 1969, is an excellent example of her modus operandi. The text about her is informative, highlighting her studies with Hans Hofmann, her association with the critic and theorist Clement Greenberg, her familiarity with Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, and Franz Kline and how she started using paint cans to pour onto her canvases at the young age of 23. All this was interesting but there was more text here than was needed since much of it was unrelated to the Washington School painters themselves.
Limited color and geometry on a flat ground are the tenets of John McLaughlin’s work installed at the end of the show. Since this piece is black and white, I presume that color for the curator also meant, for black, all colors absorbed, and for white, all color reflected. It seemed completely out of place.
I wish the curator(s) had included at least one or two contemporary artists interested in color and working in DC today. For example, if one goes through the photo show just beyond this exhibition, you will see a piece by Maggie Michael entitled “Helmet”, 2006. Note this Washingtonian’s use of/love of color and how it is handled differently in a more recent piece (mixed with other mediums, e.g. and more obviously personal and expressive). On the same floor, see also Chris Martin’s abstract painting of 2008 using latex, ink and enamel on canvas.
One also wonders how the choices were made for inclusion in the show since on the same floor in the area called “Minimalism and the Washington Color School”, one finds more work by Gene Davis and Anne Truitt, along with non-Washington color-related artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold and Ad Reinhardt all for whom color was significant and integral to their work, perhaps more so than for some of the others included in the “Color Connections” final gallery of the show.
The visual appeal of the show—bright color, process-oriented work—will draw viewers, but if you are looking for conceptual and educational enlightenment or if you wonder about artists’s motivations, passions, about what they do and why, if they talked to each other, or wrote letters to each other and if you want layers of meaning, then you may want to go elsewhere. Writing this review, I was reminded of the challenges and intricacies that go along with curating exhibitions, especially those that must work with whatever permanent collection is at hand. With funding at a minimum, curatorial staff has to come up with more and more shows based on their collections. This was one of those shows. It was a decent attempt, just not thorough enough.
The exhibition is on view through March 6, 2011 and reopens June 25 – August 14, 2011.


Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow
The joint of Art and Science: Is he an artist or an activist?
The first impression of the paintings at the entrance of Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was powerful. They were colorful, large and synthetic images, which I believe all these components captivate an audience easily. On top of that, I thought chronological order of the show helped viewers to engage the artworks and grasp the ideas better. All 47 paintings were categorized in eight different sections: Early works, Biosphere, Guyana, Urban Jungle, Expedition, Artificial Selections, American Icons and Big Weather. Throughout the exhibition, Rockman introduces science realm into the art world and it is interesting to see how these two distant fields, the concept from science and technique of art, are combined. It is confusing to figure out where Rockman stands in these fields but we could at least see how far he came along this road by analyzing the development of his paintings and the contents.
Rockman’s main interest is in natural history and he was exposed to the subject because his mother worked at the American Museum of Natural History when he was younger. Especially, he was fascinated by dioramas and they inspired him on how to look at the world. In one of his early works, “Evolution (1992),” he used diorama to present all different kinds of real and imagined animals and plants. Next to the painting, there was a stack of plan of the painting depicting all 214 animals and their names that are in the painting. It was the beginning of emerging science into art in Rockman’s artworks and borrowing diorama idea was fascinating. However, I wondered how effective it was to use the diorama setting in two-dimensional artwork. It doesn’t mean that it is less interesting than three-dimensional dioramas but it was definitely more self-engagement needed. In addition, I was concerned that there were too many animals depicted in the monumental sized painting and it was overwhelming to look at every individual figure in the painting. It was definitely intriguing to grab one copy of the plan and look up the names of animals I noticed from the painting, and by doing so; it created the atmosphere of being in a science museum. However, the diorama setting didn’t specifically change much of the perception of viewers on how to look at a painting or anything from this. Overall, I wasn’t sure where I should give more weight into, whether I appreciate the painting as an artwork or act like I am in a science museum studying all the creatures in the painting.
Moving along to “Urban Jungle” section, Rockman’s use of diorama come back in “Airport” and “Golf Course,” which are three-dimensional block models made of envirotex, digitized photo and oil paint on wood in 1997. Comparing these to “Evolution,” it was more successful with use of materials because he included actual objects such as trash, golf balls, golf club, soil and so on. These 3D model works aren’t aesthetically pleasing as much as “Evolution,” but deliver the artist’s message more clearly. Therefore, as the purpose of diorama in museums, borrowing it to his art does what Rockman intended in these two artworks, and represents what he wants to say about a man-made disaster. Diorama turned out to be a strong ground of Rockman’s artworks.
The next group of paintings that are from South American jungle of Guyana gives a feeling of artist’s personal attachment because they are looked through one’s lenses. Rockman traveled to Guyana twice; in the first journey, he primarily documented insect life and jungle scenes. Though the paintings captured real jungle scenes, it made me question if I was looking at a real depiction or imaginary pictures. In “Kapok Tree,” it is painted as if the artist is looking up the tree and the sky in the darkness. The painting expresses this sensation that humans are so tiny and incomparable to the mystery and sacred jungle that the Kapok tree is infinite in height and the sky is unreachable. The painting “Host and Vector,” also radiates endless charms of Guyana jungle. With the mixture of pastel toned background and brilliant colored foreground of trees, flowers and a bird, I felt that I was looking at a fairy tale picture. The paintings in “Guyana” section are about 84 inch by 72 inch and they are fairly large-scale works, but I wish there were mural size paintings like “Evolution.” I thought the scene of “Host and Vector” in larger panel would bring extensive impact on viewers.
From the return to the jungle of Guyana the second time, Rockman came back with quite different images than from the first trip. His intention of documenting his trip shifted to representation of his adventure in the jungle. In other words, if he created aesthetically beautiful paintings from the first trip, he is now more interested in the content regarding human’s ignorance towards the nature and ecosystem. He painted imagined incidents in the wild, so they are somewhat illustrative and have obvious narrations that anyone could have similar experience from camping. However, it is different because the images of the insects and plants in the jungle are unfamiliar and they are so realistically depicted that it adds a level of fear to even envisage putting myself in these situations. Yet, I enjoyed looking at Rockman’s paintings from his jungle trips because I got vicarious satisfaction of the experience of exploring the jungle.
As going towards the end of the show, Rockman’s latest works, it laid another layer of realization about what is going on with mankind involvement in the nature and I was concerned about the environmental issues we are facing at the moment. In “Artificial Selections” section, Rockman brought up artificial manipulation of species and imagined what would result from it in the future. In “The Farm,” there are farm animals that we feel closeness from seeing them a lot while we were growing up: however, it is shocking when looking at the details of genetic manipulation. Even “The Trough” literally shows genetic mutation of a pig fucking a duck. Rockman seemed to use his humor in these paintings but the images were so gross and disgusting to digest in my mind. In this section of paintings, Rockman pushed his boundary again about presenting his issue strongly. It’s becoming more like an agenda to awake viewers about his concerns. There is a notion that the information is forced at me, but I would have to agree that it is the most effective way to inform and warn people about our future, because we cannot avoid thinking once again about the problem that the artist is addressing after looking at the paintings.
Finally, in the last two sections, “American Icons” and “Big Weather,” Rockman touched the most popular and serious topic in the world. He brought up the issue of climate crisis in his work by portraying well known places turning into unrecognized areas. In “South,” Rockman portrayed the polar landscape from the Antarctic trip in 2007. He used staining and pouring techniques to illustrate unpredictable weather of cloudiness, and dripping white and blue paints of iceberg to show the ice melting as a result of a rise in temperature. Comparing this particular painting to “Supergrid” and “The Reef,” which the artist used the same technique of pouring, “South” was a little disappointment because it seemed like a simple and effortless painting that needs more technical elaboration. I assume it was probably an ambitious trip to Antarctic but I do not see the artist’s unique experience and perspective in the painting. We know the result of global warming because we see and hear from media all the time, and I was expecting more dramatic imagery like “The Farm”. However, I have to admit that it was the most interesting subject matter of environmental science because it is a currently ongoing issue. The paintings of “American Icons” and Big Weather” reiterated the reality to viewers and perhaps moved them to feel unprovoked guilt. People are already aware of the problem and that they are involved in daily pollution of the world. However, they justify their tiny erroneous behavior and remain ignorant on global warming.
Although majority of his paintings are dealing with natural science and environmental related themes, one part of exhibition, “Biosphere,” didn’t fit well with the other paintings. It might have been to introduce how Rockman’s idea developed in his art making; however, the paintings in this section were the least successful representation. I was baffled by orchids and organisms floating around on the picture plane in “Biosphere: Orchids” and “Biosphere: Hydrographer's Canyon.” The space in the paintings was read as the cosmos rather than biosphere and what the artist intended to show wasn’t clear enough. In this exhibition, I assert that there was too many different ideas presented and it would have been effective to have paintings focused on one issue of environmental science, such as global warming. It would have worked out better if the artist were trying to change our thinking, so that viewers are not confused with all the issues presented now.
Rockman’s interests in natural history: ecosystems, genetic engineering and environmental issues, were well combined with art, and aesthetically pleasing and attractive paintings are created. Also, the size of paintings was generally large that it increased the sublime of both imagery and the theme. However, I am still curious how I should take this peculiar union of art and science. Even though I would like to credit Rockman for joining art and science together, it is strange to feel the optical satisfaction of beautiful images and feel unstable, confused, worried and guilty from the concept of the artworks at the same time. Furthermore, I was unsure where Rockman stands in the realm of art and science. As much as I would like to categorize him as an artist, it seemed to me that many people think of him more as an activist using his paintings as a method. It is true that Rockman’s paintings have explicit opinion and the perspective of how we are unconsciously destroying our natural environments, and also have the quality of re-awakening the viewers about it. So another contradiction exists in combining two different areas of art and science and then distinguishing from each other.


Although overshadowed by the buzz and controversy surrounding the show right upstairs from it, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," “Americans Now,” is an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that could have had just as much star potential. Running through July 10th, this compilation of works from the museum’s permanent collection features Americans who have shaped our culture, society, and world views within the past decade. Acknowledging the ease at which portraiture is dismissed as being old-fashioned in today’s heterogeneous art world, the exhibition’s intention is to showcase and explore how humility, notoriety, and relevancy operate within interpretations of identity in our fractured and complex society. Curatorial statements contend the show’s objective as being to “reflect the variety of media the Portrait Gallery is now collecting,” and to “address the museum’s recently established policy of accepting living subjects into the collection.”
In meandering through this array of human faces, forms, and personas, it was a constant frustration to grapple for analogous relations within this spatial organization of the show, which spans the the front hallway and several side-rooms of a wing on the first floor. When passing through, one cannot help but make loose, associative groupings of the images. In some instances, ‘neighborhoods’ of portraits compliment one another and seem to encompass various facets of a certain common denominator. For instance, one wall displays reverent photographs that together form a Western-themed triptych, setting George Strait, Willie Nelson, and Larry McMurtry as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Other, more contrived juxtapositions add another layer of mystique to the subjects, as in the case of the grouping of Dan Winter’s “Joyce Carol Oates,” William Abranowicz’s “Martha Stewart,” and Anthony Barboza’s “Mathe Hong Kingston.” In this particular group, each of these digital prints convey the vast differences in the niches of these women, yet despite these differences, they all establish a certain relationship to the audience - an entrapping one due to the subjects’ feminine, but unsettling glances. However cleverly-constructed some relations of portraits in the show are, however, rows such as the one including stills of Tony Kushner, Bill Viola, Andre Agassi, and John Mackley, represent the presence of misfit-groupings which refuse to lend themselves any easy associations in subject or approach.
Upon walking into the first room on the right, you are immediately confronted by a modestly-sized, yet blatantly Warholesque screen print of first lady Michelle Obama, “Michelle O.” Mickalone Thomas’ vampy, yet, glamorous portrayal of her political highness prepares the viewer for the commanding Shepard Fairey “Hope” portrait of President Barack Obama that lies in the room ahead. While an obvious crowd-pleaser and symbol of our times, this charged image seems out of place with the group of portraits surrounding it. Stuck near these polarized government figures are two humble, photo-realistic portraits of the Nobel Prize-winning scientists, David Baltimore and Harold Varmus, both by Jon R. Friedman. While wonderfully rendered and offering inviting and congenial expressions, these two figures are too innocuous where they hang, leaving them no less anonymous than before. Across the floor, a portrait of Ben Bernanke made entirely out of cut and collaged currency is quirky, but not deep. Interesting symbolic implications of money as the material of a person arise, but in the portrayal of the Federal Reserve Chairman, the execution is trite rather than innovative. Unfortunately, this is one of few examples of non-traditional media amidst the collection.
Entering the next room over, there hangs another juggernaut of a painting, this one featuring L.L. Cool J (a.k.a. Ladies Love Cool James) overtop of an optically-jarring red and green ornamental background and at a four-times-larger-than-life scale. Informed by the composition and accentuations of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of John D. Rockefeller, the artist, Kehinde Wiley, manifests shifting notions of status and culture, and flairs of both the urban and urbane in this painting. The presence of L.L. Cool J on his leather chair with his personal crest on the top-right corner of the canvas situates the hip-hop mogul-turned-entrepreneur as the confident over-seer of the room. This over-the-top and flamboyant style of portraiture was one of the most effective pieces in the exhibition, not because of technical skill or shock-value, but because Wiley’s art and L.L. Cool J’s career are very much in the same vein. Their own personal histories, cultural identities, and even publicized styles lend a natural understanding not apparent in many of the other artist-subject relationships. Something about this work seems much more authentic and mutually autobiographical, which, makes sense considering the inescapability of own personal projections in portraiture reading.
Jason Salavon’s “Late Night Triad” is a strong piece that allowed the viewer a glimpse of the subjects in action. Studying an animated subject shows much more than a sessile portrait because it grants access to gestures, quirks, and even a prolonged and shifting gaze. When Salavon superimposed clips of 64 days worth of late-night television’s three biggest men, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, and David Letterman, he effectively constructs three different studies, each with their own particular mannerisms. The distinct and repeated patterns that emerge in each figure coupled with the consequential static and fuzziness of the visual layering both skews and designates each comedian’s identity. Taking snippets of each of the men performing in their ‘public natural environment’ highlights something inherently human and artificial. Another divergence from the instantaneous image, Esquire magazine’s “Portrait of the Twenty-First Century,” allows the subjects the devices of their own subjectivity through digital media in an attempt to get the very essence of the subject. All of the footage in this video-loop installation takes place within a ten-by-ten-foot cube monitored by surround-vision cameras, though imagery itself is again intentionally blurry, jumping, and hard to decipher at times, so as not to lend itself for an ‘easy’ read. The concept of confining the subjects in a neutral circumstance and allowing them freedom to do what they please, regardless of how these actions relate to their public image, is an innovative and fresh approach to portraiture.
Overall, this exhibition did provide a survey of contemporary and relevant portraiture, but I was left longing for something a little more complex. I suppose I was hoping for something more radical; examples that made more of a statement. Having the opportunity to showcase a variety of people who have made ground-breaking contributions and who assumingly possess their own special, patented-brands of genius and eccentricity should have naturally lent itself to a little more profundity than was delivered. Viewers seem too easily amused by the digital prints of Tony Hawk skateboarding around his bare-footed, child-holding wife in a kitchen scene, and Tom Hanks with his serene, yet contemptuous gaze in Dan Winter’s rendition of “America’s favorite average guy.” In this collection, it appears, for the most part, that the familiarity of the subject itself that engages the viewers, rather than the concepts and undertones of the portraiture itself. Chuck Close, an artist known for his ardent contribution to the portrait genre has room installation, “A Couple of Ways of Doing Something,” that is largely ignored by the general spectators. Even though it features anomalies such as daguerreotypes and a reflective self-portrait that challenges conventional linear perspective, the presented dialogue on the idea of portraiture itself is apparently not as appealing as a that of a familiar face.
Walking through the exhibition, I did not, as the Prologue invited me to, wonder which individuals would still be remembered generations from now, and which individuals would be all but forgotten. The scale of the portraits established these convictions implicitly. A few large and recognizable portraits dwarf and eclipse other figures, with the size of celebrity or recognition achieved seemingly dictating the size of the portrait. The showing a variety of of people with the boldness of their portraits directly relational to the subjects’ notoriety, is not a convincingly intentional insinuation.
I guess the fact that the National Portrait Gallery recently began accepting images of living people was thought a brazen enough move for the time-being. Even with the broad genre of identities displayed, there could have been better thematic reconciliation in a contemporary show, however. There was a notable absence of representation of individuals under the age of 30, although there is certainly a range of young candidates that could really embody spirit of the American dream today. If we are realistically expected to hypothesize as to which of these characters are to stick within our culture, then someone young and seemingly unstoppable might provide a healthy dose of debate and honesty. I’m thinking Mark Zuckerberg or even Paris Hilton as worthy additions. While they may not have found the cure for cancer, being a self-made billionaire at 26, or being renowned as the best in the field at being famous for being famous are distinct and powerful qualities. While I suspect that the selection committee for “Americans Now” was looking for more established and respectable subjects, these over-looked citizens are just as much a product and signifier of America now. The collection in this show seems to idealize most of the subjects, portraying these people as characters, acting in a way that the viewer would presumably envision them, with few exceptions. Some of the work adequately recontextualizes prominent figures, while others simply produce something that falls short of an expected head-shot on the cover of an unauthorized biography. The age-old struggle between perception and reality in portraiture is represented with varying degrees of success in “Americans Now.”


HIDE/SEEK difference and desire in American portraiture
October 30, 2010 through February 13, 2011
When entering Hide/Seek I had no expectations of the exhibition that was before me besides the press recently that the “Fire in my Belly” video work by David Wojnarowicz was taken out of the exhibition. That is something we will cover later in this review. Approaching the show you are greeted by the ever more iconosized Mr. Andy Warhol, Camouflage Self Portrait (Red). To the left is a rather typical subtle Smithsonian text explaining that the shows main intent is “to tell the story of a powerful artistic and cultural legacy that has been hidden in plain sight for more than a century.”
Now I really had to meet my resistance and just take the show for what it was at this moment. I could already feel the bias of the news feeds and local chatter this exhibition had received, stirring in my head and wanting to critic before seeing it all for what it was. Then my eyes turned to what was clearly a collection of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer) based subject matter and a room full of interested viewers. “Wonderful” I thought”, art making a social impact on hundreds of unassuming viewers!
Myself included, I had no clue that this was such a heavily constructed collection of artists ranging from Nan Goldin to Jasper Johns with content so very important in the current American political climate. Looking back I did question the soft entrance text discussing “image, portraits and identity” more so than “gay, political, LGBTQ or graphic” but after all this is the Smithsonian and we are in the very conservative town of D.C (or at least the funding for this town is from a conservative standpoint). I felt like the text played it safe and having a Andy Warhol in the entrance window is a very important move by the curators here that will come up again and again in this exhibition.
As I turned right from the entrance there was a rather striking work by Jack Pierson entitled Self Portraits, which were different men in underwear slightly aroused and staring back at the view intently, but they were actually other men and not Pierson.
Next to this piece in the corner was a personal favorite of mine, Robert Gobers Paper Stacks, 1992. This piece was a subtle work of newspaper stacks that the top page had been reprinted with headlines such as “Family Values and the KKK”. I really enjoy works like this that ask the viewer to come in closer for a more fine tuned look. “Here, the well-worn gay strategy of camouflage returns for political end” read the title card.
AIDS play a very prevalent part of the discussion. In the center of the room here on the right was displayed a simple plate by Jerome Caja, Charles Devouring Himself. In the center of the plate was a image of a man eating another man, very bloodied up which was actually composed of Jerome's’ friend Charles’s ashes, whom died from AIDS, mixed with nail polish. Quite an interesting turn of medium on a very traditional platform. After Charles couldn’t handle the severe pain and suffering of late stage AIDS he committed suicide and his friend Caja memorialized him forever in this plate. Though the piece gave off a rather strong undertone of disapproval, it was a medium choice of strong conviction and was rather interesting. Next to this work on the large side wall was a work called Felix, June 5, 1994. This was a print by AA Bronson of his friend wasted away dead in bed after a few hours passed. In the late stages of his death, Bronson said his friend wanted nothing more than his television, visits from friends and his cigarettes. Though the figure was rather hard to stare back at, the delivery was the image in a pixilated staticy RGB tone like that of a bad television with a stark white remote next to his dead hand was a strong message of what we hold dear in our end days. As I turned form this somber experience, I was met by a personal favorite artist Félix González-Torres whose work I’ve never been able to partake in but today I snatched up one of his candies and stood back to watch the work at play. People didn’t know how to handle it and even with a huge, rather tacky, sign next to the work “Please Note, Eating candy from this exhibition may present a choking hazard”, a “brave” few picked from the pile. Torres work was considered rather a protest based on the fact that the installations key component was a viewer destruction of the work. As I watched and listened to the faint sound of a wrapper crunching here and there, a smile came upon my face for the first time this exhibition. Then in the middle of the back of the room was a display of photographs one of which really stopped me in my tracks, Misty and Jimmy Panlette in a Taxi by Nan Goldin. The stare from the blue wigged man on the left is undeniable and sad with a sense of “why the fuck are you looking at me like that! What is it now!” Then I had this heterosexual guilt come over me and shame me into looking away. This piece kept me looking back with a true understanding to how we are all, every single different type of human being on this planet, really not that different from one another. At this point in the show, I was rather ashamed of the country I live in for not stepping to the plate fully on equal rights for all, even a guy who wants to wear a blue wig and dress in drag, what does it matter, we’ve all felt that way in the back of our own “cab” at some point. Here is when I noticed how really silent the room has been this whole time. When looking around I saw a great mixture of all races, sexes and sexual preferences. Some hanging out on the viewing benches, some battling with the direct content of the show and some just peddling through like good tourists.
Some other works of distinction were: Wynn Chamberlain, Poets (clothed) Poets (naked). Andy Worhol, Troy Diptych. Andrew Wyeth, The Cleaning. Elsworth Kelly, David Herbert. Thomas Eakins, Salute. Grant Wood, Arnold Comes of Age. Jasper Johns, Souvenir. Paul Cadmus, What I Believe.
The reason I mentioned these works is they really proved to me that while the Smithsonian played it safe in textual presentation, the curator did work a nice flowing layout, but its the art in the end always has the power. This show, along with my critics of it being heavily slanted towards men and mostly gay only issues, its mostly all blatant figurative work, the rather offensive wall text attempts to “protect” the weary public, and taking out of the David Wojnarowicz piece, was the strongest exhibition I’ve seen in DC all year (2010)! The reason being that the art really had impact and all together in one room speaking, no yelling, it really made me think and question my own convictions. I was rather impressed with Hide/Seek and I really didn’t expect to be. “Just another exhibition of gay slanted work that doesn’t apply to me” I thought, I was wrong. This exhibition as a whole can serve and hopefully will to how art can really make a difference in our world. Maybe its just because were in DC, or the Obama Administration just repealed “Dont Ask Dont Tell”, but either way something determined was happening in that room and it won’t be denied for much longer. I’m excited that within my life time, America is going to get it right sooner or later, but its with art like this that sooner is on the forefront.
I recently saw the David Wojnarowicz “Fire In My Belly” work at the ICA in Boston this month. I had to go to Boston, not in my own damn capital, where they hung witches to see a movie about a mans struggle with the pains and sufferings of AIDS. I was so excited that an alliance of museums got together in protest to put on showing what was banned in D.C. that I was rather jaded by the movie itself. Its not really that good and really sloppy, though maybe intended that way, that the hype behind it was kind of a let down. It was what it stood for that was so resilient. So what there was blood, guts, gay innuendos and a man jerking himself off. There was far heavier material left in the Hide/Seek exhibition from what I saw. “Fire In My Belly” was just a scapegoat, a scapegoat for the far Christian right in this country to try and impose their will on a lost agenda for something that never existed in the first place here. This country is a great and wonderful melting pot for all the creativity in the world to come meet and think freely. Some ants crawling on a damn cross, with or without a figure that half the worlds population doesn’t even acknowledge as their own, wasn’t the issue for them. The “Gays” were the issue. The fact that this exhibition dealt quite openly and honestly with the mirror we’ve turned away from for far to long here in this country. That for it to be a truly free and a truly great nation it was meant to be, everyone, that means everyone must be treated equal! I was proud when I left the exhibition to think to myself that I stand for this equality that is under attack and that being an artist can really mean something and can promote change in a country screaming for justice. Now how to handle that in a more honest mature way then the Smithsonian did with its bureaucratic side-handed approach is something that the art world can really teach. This is what artist like Wojnarowicz and the amazing collection of artist’s in Hide/Seek stood for. All of us, in our art, should all be this fortunate and at the least strive everyday to do each other equity by upholding the ethics of true equality.


A review of ‘Lego Architecture: Towering Ambition’ at the National Building
Currently on exhibit, and running through September 5th, at the National Building Museum is ‘Lego Architecture: Towering Ambition’. The exhibition contains fifteen skyscrapers and other architectural works modeled in same plastic Lego blocks loved by millions of children for generations. Architect Adam Reed Tucker who is in a partnership with LEGO Systems, Inc. created the models. Most took hundreds of hours and the largest nearly half a million Lego blocks. The models are immaculately designed and impressive for being made out of just the standard plastic Lego pieces. That being said it is hard to see how this exhibition could be in any museum that takes the word “museum” seriously. It is not art, nor is it educational on anything but a very rudimentary way. It is clear right off that the only real goal is providing entertainment to the masses in order to make money for the museum, for with LEGO Systems, Inc., and Tucker.
The exhibit is in one room on the second flood of the Building Museum. The room contains the more than a dozen models, a Lego play area provided by LEGO Systems, Inc., and a shop selling absurdly overpriced( and overly simple) Lego sets allowing visitors to make some the same buildings in the exhibit, sometimes with less than a hundred pieces. These Lego sets were made in partnership with Adam Reed Tucker making the real goal of the exhibit obvious on its face.
The first model that the viewer encounters when entering the exhibit is the no longer existing World Trade Center. I could perhaps overlook this as being merely opportunistic if the introductory wall text to the exhibition didn’t state that Tucker was “motivated by the tragic events of September 11, 2001…to express his reverence for the form of the skyscraper and deepen his understanding and appreciation of architecture, engineering, and construction.” It could just be my cynicism but to me this comes off as a little disingenuous. As one continues through the exhibition each model is accompanied by a sign, which has the buildings name, location, height and date, as well as occasionally a couple of sentences pointing out particular building highlights. On the left side of the sign is the models height, number of Lego pieces used, as well as the models design and build time. Nothing substantially educational is offered.
In addition to famous landmarks the exhibition contains skyscrapers that are under construction or only exist as plans. Chicago has many more buildings represented then any other city. The two 112-story apartment buildings known as Marina City is represented as 4-foot models, the smaller, recently competed Trump Tower Chicago is represented as an 8-foot model. The inconsistent scale gives the viewer no way to see the buildings in relation to each other besides the printed size on the sign. The famous Sears Tower is also reimagined in Legos here. Two other ambitious and architecturally significant Chicago buildings are represented here that may never be actually built due to changing economic realities. The first is 7 South Dearborn . The now canceled project would have been 1550 feet, 2000 feet if you include the broadcast tower. While not the largest model in the exhibit, the bold Chicago Spire, which is listed as a project on hold, seems to be the highlight of the show. This building, which rises in a dramatic corkscrew fashion, would be an incredible 150 stories if ever built. The accompanying text almost mocks intelligent inquiry (which should be the goal of a museum exhibition such as this) with its brevity. It states it total “Look at the unique curves of the building. The curved design adds strength to the structure and minimizes wind forces”
The largest building, as well as the largest model, is Dubai’s unprecedented Burj Khalifa. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest man mad structure ever. It is 162 stories and 2,684 feet tall with its spire. The model is by far the largest in the exhibit at seventeen and a half feet. It uses 450,300 Lego pieces and took over 600 hours including the design and build time. Although this is impressive it does nothing to indicate the sheer elegance and absurd grandeur of the actual building.
Rounding off the exhibit stepping away from the skyscrapers are a few classic American landmarks. These are also the weakest points of the exhibit. The St. Lois Arch should have been in the exhibit but was not on view due to damage. Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater is represented with a strange abstract reimagining of its landscape. This destroys Wright’s masterful marrying of the building with its surroundings in an embarrassingly awkward way. Its almost an insult when you finish the exhibit and are presented an opportunity to spend a hundred dollars for a small and even chunkier representation of it also designed by Tucker in collaboration with LEGO Systems, Inc.
Lego’s have been a part of American childhood for generations. In their simple form they provide millions of children endless ways to build their creativity in free imaginative play. Lego’s were my favorite and most often used toy in my childhood, but they were just a variety of anonymous blocks that I could use to stretch my imagination and creativity. Today they are more often found sets to construct a specific form (that was all that was offered in the exhibition store) easy to construct and requiring no imagination.
So after leaving the museums exhibit what are we left with, what can be learned from it. Little can be learned by what the exhibit is offering it is largely just entertainment. What I found myself thinking about more was the role and responsibility of a museum and the relationship between its educational goals verses its goals as a business. The National Building Museum states on its webpage that it was created by an act of congress in 1980 and that it “has become one of the world’s most prominent and vital venues for informed, reasoned debate about the built environment and its impact on people’s lives.” If that was truly the goal of this exhibition I can only call it a failure, if on the other hand the goal was profit the fact that it was sold out for several hours when I came to attend would indicate it is a smashing success.