Picture This: An Iconic Artwork by Alfredo Jaar
January 21, 2015
A few days ago, The Washington Post published an article about an iconic artwork by Alfredo Jaar: Life Magazine April 19, 1968. Jaar took a photograph of Martin Luther King's funeral from an issue of Life magazine and graphically depicted African Americans walking in the crowd behind King's coffin. Next to it he showed whites in that same crowd. His triptych both simplifies and comments on America at the time of Martin Luther King's death in 1968.
If you would like to see the piece it is part of American Art's collection and hangs in the Lincoln Gallery on the third floor of our building.
Picture This: Wood Turning a Tree From Our Kogod Courtyard
January 20, 2015
If you've been able to recently stop by at American Art's Kogod Courtyard, you may have noticed a change in the landscape. Back in August, horticulturists from Smithsonian Gardens, along with members of our facilities crew removed two black olive trees and a ficus and replaced them with fresh black olives (which, oddly enough, do not actually produce olives at all).
To remove the old trees from the courtyard they had to be cut apart. Katie Crooks, public program coordinator for the museum, put horticulturist Joel Lemp in contact with local wood turner and collection artist Phil Brown to see if we could give the removed trees a new life. Several sections of the old trees were given to Phil, and he was able to transform them by literally turning them (on a lathe) into functional bowls. Three of the pieces were given back to the museum to use as education pieces, and the others were sold at a fundraiser during JRA Day, the charity event for the Renwick Gallery's support group the James Renwick Alliance where Phil is a member.
Stop on by to see the new trees. They are in the southwest quadrant of the Kogod Courtyard. And who knows, if you take part in a highlights tour, the docent might pull out one of the Phil's bowls when discussing the landscape.
Film Screening: Aves: Magnificent Frigate Bird, Great Flamingo
January 15, 2015
On Tuesday, January 20 American Art will screen Aves: Magnificent Frigate Bird, Great Flamingo, a film by Nancy Graves, artist and former member of the museum's Commission. The screening is as part of our exhibition The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art. Former public programs assistant, Laurel Fehrenbach, had a chance to speak with Christina Hunter, director of the Nancy Graves Foundation, who will introduce this experimental film. The screening will be held at the museum's McEvoy Auditorium, starting at 6 p.m. Admission is free.
Eye Level: Did you know Nancy Graves before coming to the Foundation? What drew you to her and her work?
Christine Hunter: I did not know Nancy Graves personally, but I knew her work —her sculptures primarily— before being nominated director at the Foundation. The three justifiably famous Camels that were first shown at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1969 are in the collection of Canada's National Gallery of Art in Ottawa. I am from Montreal, so of course we all knew those, and the other large hanging "totemic" sculpture in their collection.
As a practicing artist, I am very drawn to Graves' work and her skill at manipulating and combining so many sources and techniques into layered yet cohesive works of art that reward lengthy looking. As a scholar I find Graves' ideas and her re interpretations of the scientific charts, diagrams, maps and documents, etc., that are the points of departure for her compositions extremely compelling. (In an amazing co incidence, as part of my very first museum internship while in college, I helped install a Nancy Graves Camel at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The only woman on the team, I was given gloves and charged with "fluffing the fur" of the Camels to hide the joints where the parts of the beast came together!)
EL: We are very lucky to have a wonderful piece of Grave's work,Pleistocene Skeleton on view. At first glance it looks like something that should be at the natural history museum, but how might you recommend a visitor approach the piece of art? How would Graves have wanted it to be experienced?
CH: Graves was deeply interested in the philosophical and aesthetic issues that surround the relationship between art, reality and experience. She questioned the difference between verisimilitude in a science museum compared to an art museum and what it means to make something that looks like a scientific statement, but is in fact an entirely handmade work of art, and a single unique piece. Graves stated that "By taking natural history as my point of departure, I was attempting to answer questions about the difference between reality and illusion. The camels are a paradigm... and were a personal statement in reaction to Pop and Minimalism, which allowed me to progress in an independent direction."
Questions surrounding reality and art are being investigated again by contemporary artists working in the digital era of virtual reality.
EL: At the end of the month you'll be joining us for a film screening of AVES where Graves was experimenting with nature film and specifically focusing on birds. What do you think inspired her fascination with avian imagery?
CH: Film was a direct expression of Graves' fundamental interest in movement. Her dispersive, multi-part, and large sculptures, including your Pleistocene Skeleton, absolutely require that the viewer move around the piece to consider all of the parts, the relationship of the parts to each other, and then the relationship of all of these points of view to a possible whole. That whole is composed of shifting positive and negative spaces. This interest in movement extended to animal movement, such as that of camels, explored in her previous films, and to the flight movements of birds against the "negative" empty space of the sky.
Graves' fascination with movement included Eadweard Muybridge's studies of human and animal locomotion, and by extension avant-garde dance, and beyond that planetary movement within the cosmos.
While her initial points of departure were references to the natural sciences, in the course of her life, she investigated data from fields as diverse as paleontology, archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, evolution, physiology and astrophysics, to name but a few.
EL: Moving between sculpture and film must be a challenge for any artist. What other media did Graves like to experiment with?
CH: Graves is recognized primarily as a post-minimalist sculptor for her early camel, bone, and floor installations, and for her later polychrome bronzes. However, Graves, a prolific artist who experimenting in many media, also produced five films, and created set designs, and developed a sustained body of paintings, drawings, and prints over the course of a three-decade career cut short by her untimely death from cancer at age 54 in 1995.
EL: As the director of the Nancy Graves Foundation, how do you keep the artist's legacy alive and continue to reach new and upcoming artists?
CH: The work itself is so compelling and seems to speak to issues being explored by artists today. Data Mining, research, interdiscliplinarity, complexity, technology, science, layered and compressed information sources, visual re presentation, and combinatory art practices all have a historic precedent in Graves' practice.
Her point of view is not introspective or psychological, instead she sought to investigate the science and technology of her time from a point of view that she describes as "objective". Yet from this point of view she still developed a highly personal and recognizable style that transcends the many media with which she worked!
A not-for-profit foundation, the Nancy Graves Foundation was established by the artist to give grants to individual artists and to maintain an archive of her life and work and organize exhibitions of her art. I oversee the collection and archive at the foundation, collaborate with scholars and institutions doing research and exhibitions of the artist and administer the Nancy Graves Grant for Visual Artists program. By encouraging a new generation of scholars to consider Graves unique oeuvre, and by reaching out to artists through the grant program we are reinserting Graves back into discussions of late 20th century art and more importantly, discussions of contemporary art.
The Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany mounted a retrospective exhibition of her work that closed last February, and from January 29th to March 7th, 2015, the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery in New York will be presenting an exceptional selection of her sculptures, paintings, drawings, watercolors and films in Chelsea. So the discussions have definitely begun!
Luce Artist Talks: Up Next, Tai Hwa Goh
January 13, 2015
American Art's Luce Foundation Center hosts local artists who discuss their work and process in the context of artworks on view in the Luce Center. The Luce Local Art Series is presented in collaboration with CulturalDC. All talks begin at 1:30 p.m. Our next artist talk is by Tai Hwa Goh this Saturday, January 17.
Tai Hwa Goh wants to lull you into an immersive experience with her installations. In her second solo exhibition at Washington, D.C.'s Flashpoint Gallery, Lulled Land, she creates an enveloping environment by combining traditional printmaking techniques with hand-waxing. Goh cuts, folds, flips, and overlaps her printed works together in ways that cease to be traditional prints and become sculptural. Filling the room, they become an extension of nature. In her multi-space installations, works look like landscapes and clouds at first glance, but closer study reveals more. By creating a work that surrounds and incorporates the viewer, Goh's pieces "evolve from biological forms to landscape..."
Goh's work can be found in the collections of DC City Hall, Lower East Side Print Shop (NY), and the University of Maryland. She earned an MFA in printmaking at Seoul National University in Korea before coming to the United States and earning a second MFA at the University of Maryland. There, she focused on printmaking and sculpture. As her art moves away from identifiable objects, it poses questions about our accepted definitions of art printmaking. She currently teaches art at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Art Center of Northern New Jersey.
She will discuss these ideas and how her work relates to works from American Art on display in the Luce Foundation Center in her Luce Artist talk on Saturday, January 17th at 1:30 p.m. Lulled Land will run at Cultural DC's Flashpoint Gallery from January 16 to February 21, 2015.
Bird Sighting: A Gallery Talk
January 9, 2015
On Tuesday, January 13 American Art will present a gallery talk about the overlap between art and nature as part of our exhibition The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art. Former public programs assistant, Laurel Fehrenbach, had a chance to speak with participants Joanna Marsh, American Art's James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art and the curator of our show and Pete Marra, head of the Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoological Park.
Eye Level: Pete, can you first tell us a little bit about the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) and the type of work you and the researchers there do?
Pete Marra: The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center is dedicated to understanding, conserving and championing the grand phenomenon of bird migration. Founded in 1991, we are located at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. We seek to clarify why migratory bird populations are declining before the situation becomes desperate. Our programs help raise awareness about migratory birds and the need to protect diverse habitats across the Western Hemisphere. Our team uses state of the art tools to track, study and protect migratory and resident birds.
EL: Joanna, it isn't often that a curator of American art gets to work with a colleague at the Zoo! How did working with the SMBC help you in the process of curating The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art?
Joanna Marsh: One of the things that I love about working at the Smithsonian is the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from other units who work in very different disciplines. The Singing and the Silence was actually born out of conversations with colleagues at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. As I began to conduct research for the show, I realized this project presented the perfect occasion to connect with Pete. I was particularly inspired by his work on the 2014 State of the Birds Report, which is referenced in the exhibition wall text. Pete's passion for both art and science made him an ideal collaborator.
EL: Pete, is there a work in the exhibition that particularly speaks to your ornithological interests? How so?
PM: This is really tough and I can't choose one because I love them all. But if I were to choose three or four: James Prosek's mural, What once was is no more: Passing like a thought, flight into memory because of its size, message, and black and white imagery reminiscent of the Peterson field guide I grew up with, Walton Ford's Falling Bough because of the flock size of the passenger pigeons, the extinction they represent, and also the "Audubon" style with which they are painted. All of Fred Tomaselli's work I find mesmerizing because of the way he mixed materials to construct the pieces and how they come together to flawlessly illustrate such bird diversity. And finally, I can't resist but stare at Tom Uttech's Enassamishhinjijweian and imagine myself in the boreal forests of northern Canada identifying all of the gorgeous birds he's painted.
EL: Since 2014 is marking the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon's extinction, what lessons are scientists and artists taking from this environmental milestone?
PM: The passenger pigeon is symbolic of extinction and the fact that we can't let this happen again and unfortunately we are. Species are declining at horribly rapid rates right before our very eyes. We could see another species go extinct like passenger pigeon in our lifetimes.
JM: The artists in this exhibition are not only concerned with the passenger pigeon's extinction but the disappearance of many of bird species and the loss of biodiversity more generally. The 100th anniversary was an excellent opportunity to raise awareness about those issues, but it can't be the only occasion we talk about species extinction. This is an ongoing preoccupation for many of the artists in The Singing and the Silence, and their goal is to make it a priority for museum-goers too.
EL: How do you hope the exhibition and the work of the Migratory Bird Center will inspire visitors to react to their own environment?
PM: I am constantly challenging myself to come up with ways to get people excited about birds and the environment. Integrating art and science allows us to try and grab people's interest in multiple ways. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. And by presenting birds through artistic impression, people may see birds through a different lens and learn to appreciate them more than they previously did. My hope is that this will inspire citizens to not only listen and observe birds more than before, but also to think about how they can make the world a better place for birds and other wildlife.
JM: While Pete's job is to help get people excited about birds, my job is to help people connect with contemporary art: to show how art can be a tool for addressing and understanding issues of our time. This is the second exhibition I've curated for the American Art Museum that confronts environmental concerns (Alex Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow was the first). It may sound idealistic, but I believe that art has the power to effect change, if only on a very small scale. I hope this exhibition encourages art-lovers to take greater notice and care of the natural world, and I hope it inspires bird-watchers to look beyond the end of their binoculars to discover the artistic, cultural and environmental significance of birds.