Seeing Things (17): Art and Healing
January 20, 2017
This is the seventeenth in a series of personal observations about how people experience and explore museums. Take a look at Howard's other blog posts about seeing things.
The story behind Emery Blagdon's The Healing Machine had captivated me even before I saw the installation in SAAM's reimagined galleries for folk and self-taught art. I find myself coming back to it frequently, just staring into it, and wondering about the artist and his belief in the ability of his artwork to be a catalyst for healing.
Blagdon created his healing environment in a small building he constructed on his farm near Callaway, Nebraska, in order to alleviate pain and illness. He cared for family members who suffered from cancer and felt there must be ways to alleviate such suffering. Blagdon began working on his creation in the late 1950s, and was still working on it when he died in 1986. His installation used found objects such as hay baling wire, magnets, and remnant paints from farm sales, as well as mineral salts and other "earth elements" that he obtained from a local pharmacy. Some of the wire pieces bent into hoops remind me of dreamcatchers or talismans. The paintings feel rife with symbolic gesture. In the thirty years he worked on the piece, he added to and rearranged his array and made constant adjustments in order to channel positive, healing forces. The individual paintings and sculptures, which Blagdon called "his pretties," are suspended from the ceiling and also occupy spaces on the floor. Blagdon believed that energies were drawn upward from the building's earthen floor into the space and worked with the hanging pieces to create a functional machine.
Healing is a theme that finds itself present in other works in the folk and self-taught galleries, and is an idea that artists throughout time and across cultures have grappled with. But, in many ways, isn't healing one of the reasons we seek out art in the first place? We often come to a museum to let a work of art find us, whether it be to fix a broken heart, a troubled soul, or even a failing body.
Abraham Thomas: New Curator-in-Charge at SAAM's Renwick Gallery
January 18, 2017
Abraham Thomas recently joined the museum's staff as The Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge at the Renwick Gallery. Thomas writes about the intersection of American craft, the Renwick, and his interests.
I've always been a big believer in dissolving boundaries between artistic disciplines. The most interesting conversations often happen when you bring objects together from disparate fields, and this sense of interdisciplinary dialogue is what makes contemporary craft so exciting. This zeal for hunting out areas of permeability was probably ingrained in me during my curatorial "youth," learning my trade at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There, I was the curator responsible for the V&A's vast design drawings collection, which ranged from the Renaissance to the present day, and spanned architecture, furniture, ceramics, graphic design, fashion, and everything in between. These sketches and drawings (and models and maquettes) really felt like the engine room of the museum. They represented a microcosm of the V&A's wider collections, but they also offered a unique insight into the working process and design thinking behind these objects. They revealed a trajectory of decision-making which included those areas of risk, failure, experimentation, and play which are often hidden from view when looking at finished pieces in a gallery. Working with this diverse collection allowed me to see what might connect a 19th-century Staffordshire bowl, a 1960s lounge chair, and an Italian Baroque funerary monument.
Similarly, at the Renwick Gallery we have the opportunity to explore how contemporary craft has a profound ability to be nimble across different forms of creative practice. In recent years we've moved beyond narrow definitions of craft, and engaged with broader ideas around making, materials, skill, and process. My predecessor, Nicholas Bell, and colleagues Nora Atkinson and Robyn Kennedy, have all done a brilliant job exploring these increasingly expansive definitions. The tremendous success of the WONDER exhibition has created a wave of momentum which allows us to prod and poke even further. For example, I'd love to explore the presence of craft in worlds as diverse as architecture, design, performance, fashion—even mathematics, science, and technology.
A good example of this is Leo Villareal's Volume (Renwick), an artwork where what's visible is simply an armature for the actual crafted "object," that is the complex algorithm which programs thousands of LEDs to create infinite dancing patterns of light and shadow. It's a poetic exercise visualizing the ephemeral nature of lines of code, the invisible 1s and 0s. As someone who worked as a coder in a former life, this is an artwork which particularly resonates for me on a personal level.
Similarly, our 3D-printed copy of the Greek Slave by Hiram Powers is a physical manifestation of millions of digital scan points taken from the plaster original in SAAM's collection. I've always believed in the huge potential of understanding the past through the lens of the contemporary, and vice versa, to use historical objects to contextualize creative practice today. Our 2015 Greek Slave "redux" offers a fresh perspective on how Powers used the 19th-century techniques of molding, casting, and pointing to create copies, and how that compares with today's technologies such as 3-D modelling and rapid prototyping, processes which open new areas of debate for contemporary craftsmanship.
Some of our upcoming exhibitions reflect these new intersections of craft, art, design, technology, and science. This summer we are commissioning architects to build a spectacular new installation for the Grand Salon, and later in the year our exhibition about the "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death" (intricate dollhouse-style dioramas of crime scenes) will examine craft through the context of forensic science; and our major exhibition in 2018 takes over the entire building and will explore thirty years of the art (and craft) of the Burning Man festival.
I love the fact that whether we're talking about lines of code, 19th-century sculpture, dollhouse miniatures, or a community of thousands gathering in the middle of the Nevada desert, here at the Renwick Gallery our collections, exhibitions and public program can play a vital role in that ongoing debate and discussion as we continue to explore future definitions for contemporary craft.
Folk and Self-Taught Art, Now in the Luce Center
January 13, 2017
SAAM's open storage Luce Foundation Center is by no means a static place. With a calendar full of public programs and one of the most Instagrammable spaces in the city (we may be biased), you can see how the space is constantly changing in our folk and self-taught art cases. We just installed almost 50 newly-acquired and new-to-Luce pieces. This new installation features old friends like Howard Finster and Grandma Moses, but also artists and artworks which have never been represented in the Luce Center before.
Three of the newly installed artworks are by Eddy Mumma, who began to paint when he was 61 and in declining health. He attended a single class, during which he was criticized by the instructor for being "sloppy in his technique," so he walked out and never returned. He was hooked, however, and spent the last seventeen years of his life at home, painting with abandon. Mumma, or "Mr. Eddy," as he was often called, painted mainly portraits of figures with prominent eyes and large hands. SAAM curator Leslie Umberger sees Mumma's work as an extension of his identity as he got older; "As Mumma's physical presence faded, his art came increasingly alive. As a once-guiding religious faith flagged, his sense of self flourished."
The Saw and the Scroll is also new to the Luce Center, but might be familiar to any of you who have previously visited our folk and self-taught galleries on the museum's first floor. Jesse Howard was quite opinionated about politics, religion, and the lives of his neighbors in Fulton, Missouri. He proclaimed his views on hand-painted signs he displayed all over his his property. Here, he painted on an old saw and canvas (possibly an old window shade) and emphasized certain words with red. Howard's signs were an exercise of his First Amendment rights, and he urges us to, "READ ON, AND ON, AND KEEP ON READING."
The last piece I want to highlight is David Butler's Untitled (Angel). Butler filled his yard in Patterson, Louisiana with sculptures he made from cut, bent, and painted tin. His subjects were frequently inspired by the Bible, folktales, or mythology. And they often moved in the wind, or were placed so that the sun cast shadows through their cut-out forms. His fabricated garden always felt vibrant and alive.
The three artists I've featured in this post represent only a selection of the new artworks now on display in the Luce Center. While you're here, please pop by the information desk and let us know what you think of our new additions.
Gene Davis: The Cool Guy of Hot Beat
January 10, 2017
Guest blogger Jean Lawlor Cohen is the consulting curator for Gene Davis: Hot Beat. She is an arts writer, independent curator, and co-author of Washington Art Matters: Art Life in the Capital 1940-1990.
Gene Davis, a journalist before he was a painter, knew the power of words. He spoke his wise and sometimes ornery mind, aware of the momentary impact and the eventual documentation of his life and career. This explains why his own bon mots (not the curators') flank most of the 15 paintings—all permutations of the stripe—in Gene Davis: Hot Beat, on view through April 2.
Interviews especially mattered to him. He enjoyed giving the press nuggets he had honed, quotes that read jargon-free, and he spoke for hours to historians who taped him for the Archives of American Art. He came to his maxims as he stuck to a self-imposed regimen ("early to bed," paint until noon), then filled his off-hours with teaching at the Corcoran School of Art or making lyrical, quirky drawings, seeing foreign films, reading the art critics (most of them parasitic and myopic, he said), and inviting friends to his studio and his dinner table.
In social conversation, Davis revealed a love of children's art (often rescued from the trash bin of a nearby nursery school), Mozart and the Sex Pistols, a passion for the Washington Redskins, and for the white XJE Jaguar he tested on a nearly empty Dulles airport access road. With sly humor, he named his slow-witted basset hounds "Gerry" for museum director Gerald Nordland and "Barney" for the admirable artist Barnett Newman. His parakeet was "Clem" for troublesome art critic Clement Greenberg.
Anyone who spent time with Davis heard stories of his White House correspondent years: how he played poker with President Truman on cross-country train trips or stood in the Oval Office on D-Day. He liked to call himself "an old newspaper man," and maybe some of that journalistic objectivity had kept him dogged and curious. Years later, when Davis left his post as an editor for the American Automobile Association to focus on painting, he already had a measure of national fame. With supportive wife Florence Coulson, he lived in a northwest D.C. colonial and added a below-grade studio, its transom shutters permanently closed against natural light. To explain himself, Davis liked to quote the advice of Gustave Flaubert: "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
Indeed control marked his lifestyle: the shaven head (he was not totally bald), the insistence on punctuality, the precisely edged lawn and mulch beds, his all-white walls, the carefully positioned canvases and small sculptures, even the territorial limits imposed on his basset hounds. It was this sense of order that made the stripe "right" for him. He found in that vertical form an "exquisite monotony," a freedom from composing and "an uncompromising quality, a rectitude."
Even though Davis had abandoned turbulent 1950s expressionism for formal geometry, he held onto what he said distinguished his color works: their "most important quality...whim." He claimed to never plan a painting or make a preliminary drawing. "My whole approach is intuitive. Sometimes I simply use the color I have the most of and worry about getting out of trouble later. Perhaps I'm like the jazz musician who can't read music but plays by ear. I paint by eye."
To learn more about Gene Davis and the colorful art world of the 1960s, join us at SAAM for a panel discussion on Thursday, January 12, 2017, at 6:30 p.m. I'll moderate a conversation with Benjamin Forgey, independent art critic and former Washington Post art and architecture critic; Jack Rasmussen, director of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, who curates many exhibitions inspired by Washington art history; and Paul Richard, Washington Post art critic from 1967 to 2009, who has personal insights and stories about Davis and other artists active in D.C.
SAAM has acquired nearly one-hundred works of self-taught art from the collection of Margaret Z. Robson. The paintings, drawings, and sculptures were created by forty-eight artists including James Castle, Thornton Dial Sr., Judith Scott, and Bill Traylor. The Robson gift comprises the largest acquisition of self-taught artworks in 20 years and reaffirms the museum's deep and lasting commitment to this area of artistic endeavor.
Margaret Robson began collecting the work in the 1980s, a time when much of the mainstream art world overlooked the importance of the work of self-taught artists. Robson brought a distinctive point of view to her collecting and preferred works that were specific to a particular culture, time, and place. According to Leslie Umberger, the museum's curator of folk and self-taught art, "The collection speaks of empowerment and a 'can-do' spirit, and it will be cherished and shared here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum."
A couple of standouts by lesser-known artists in the collection include Albert "Kid" Mertz, whose painted stack of more than one-thousand railroad spikes was part of his vivid painted environment, and Leroy Person, who carved patterns into the window sills and doors of his North Carolina home before creating a large body of similarly incised abstract woodcarvings.
Five Bill Traylor paintings from the Robson gift will be included in the museum's planned 2018 retrospective Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor curated by Umberger. SAAM will produce an exhibition and book dedicated to the Robson collection in its entirety at a future date.