Luce Unplugged: 5 (plus one) Questions with the Band lowercase letters
January 29, 2015

lowercase letters

lowercase letters

Save the date for The Winter Luce Unplugged Community Showcase coming up next Friday, February 6th from 6-8 p.m. Since Valentine's Day is just around the corner, invite a date or take a chance and come meet that someone special. Once again, we've teamed up with the Washington City Paper (WCP) to bring you an evening of music and drinks in American Art's Luce Foundation Center. Two local acts will perform: Art Sorority for Girls and lowercase letters. Port City Brewing Company will provide free beer tastings, and there will be a cash bar as well. Like the best things in life, the show is free.

Art Sorority for Girls is a rotating folk-meets-punk-meets-indie collective that supports the vocals and witty lyrics of helmsman Daoud Tyler-Ameen. The group's latest LP, Older Boys, was praised by WCP for its "homespun essence" and likened to a "well-produced... Tiny Desk Concert." So we're excited to see them play in the intimate setting of Luce. lowercase letters are Luce Unplugged alums who make sultry R&B tunes (check out their recent LP). We talked to lowercase letters AKA Alphie, Clinton and JB, who gave us a taste of what we can expect from their set.

Eye Level: You played at one of the early Luce Unpluggeds back in April, 2012. What's changed for you since then? What's the same?

Alphie: We got Clinton! We also finished our album and released it, drove from DC to Austin for SXSW and recorded each fantastic moment, wrote more music and continued to hone our crafts.

JB: Yep, going from 2 to 3 members is the change to point to. Everything else is the same—we're just trying to make cool music and get people to hear it.

EL: What else are you working on?

Clinton: Now that the album is out we're working to tighten up new songs, some of which we want to release on an EP sooner, rather than later. We don't want to pull them out before they're fully baked, but we'll play at least one of the new joints at the show.

EL: Do you have any local musical influences?

JB: I was pretty big into some of the post-punk stuff in the mid-late '90s but you probably couldn't tell from lowercase letters stuff. I went to tons of Fugazi and Dismemberment Plan shows (got to play with D-Plan a bunch in my old band Gift to the Greedy). And Shudder to Think's Pony Express Record might be the most beautifully crazy album I've ever heard. Oh yea, and my boy Drew has let me get a sneak preview listen of the new Beauty Pill record, and it's fantastic.

Clinton: They come in all shapes, sizes, and forms. I grew up in D.C. so most of them are local: the city itself and its indigenous music, the innocent teasing at school for being in "band," the island music playing in our home, the teachers and other students. For me, the most important influences (good and bad) took hold when I was younger and less sure of myself. Years later I'm still here playing music, so the positive ones must have beat out the negative ones.

EL: Do you have any pre-show rituals?

JB: We'll often be ambitious in trying new things at shows, so a quick huddle to make sure we know "who does what at that new part" is a nice way to get all on the same page without messing it up onstage.

Alphie: And beer.

EL: [Internet radio station] Hometown Sounds has some awesome covers you did. What's the recipe for a good cover?

Alphie: Mmmmmm. First, love the song. Second, strip it all the way down to the melody and/or chords. Third, build it again (optional). We also did a studio recording of a Beach House cover, check it out.

EL: If you could be remembered by one lyric...

Alphie: Oh, man. ok. "And, yo, the city's restless. Count your blessings if you're into those."

Posted by Amelia on January 29, 2015 in Five Question Interviews, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Five Questions: Septime Webre of The Washington Ballet
January 27, 2015

External Affairs Chief Jo Ann Gillula recently chatted with Washington Ballet's Artistic Director Septime Webre about the upcoming premiere of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, opening February 18 at the Kennedy Center. American Art will present the Washington Ballet in excerpts from the new Sleepy Hollow with members of the company, as well as many interactive ballet and art activities on January 31 in the Kogod Courtyard of the American Art Museum.

Eye Level: I know you are doing a series of new, commissioned ballets based on great American literature. What drew you to the idea of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and what was it about our painting The Headless Horseman that led you to placing it in this early 19th century time period?

Septime Webre: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is truly America's first great ghost story. It is haunting, poetic, mysterious and supernatural. "The American Experience" initiative is unique to The Washington Ballet and was conceived and launched to transform the American dance aesthetic away from its traditional Eurocentric perspective to one that is rooted in our American stories. The American narrative has not been told in ballet, and my interest is in adapting iconic works of American literature, using our dance vocabulary. Thus far, TWB has world premiered Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, both of which have received such positive acclaim from audience goers and critics alike. We know Sleepy Hollow will be the same.

Former Yale American History professor Bill Lilley came to me knowing that this work would translate quite wonderfully to the ballet stage, as it has a variety of themes such as love, lust, fear, revenge and humor. We worked together with librettist and playwright Karen Zacarias to turn the literary masterpiece into a ballet. The story reflects a time where America was limitless. The unknown was a theme in every American's life. What lies beyond the next mountain? What happens when the dirt road ends? If you take a look at [John] Quidor's The Headless Horseman, you'll notice two things...a boundless mountain scape in the background that represents freedom and beauty, but you'll also notice the trees and bushes looking like skeletal, thorny hands...almost osteoarthritic. Nature is open and endless, but nature can be encapsulating and filled with danger. I want to convey the mood that Quidor does. I want to represent the spectrum of what an unknown frontier conveys; opportunity and danger.

EL: You and your set designer have walked the museum with our curators to discover Hudson River School paintings to use as a basis for your set and costume designs. What were you looking for and how did he decide to use these paintings: as projections or as set pieces that will fly from the stage?

SW: With any great work of art, we were looking to be moved. We were looking for art that triggered our imaginations and engaged us in something bigger than the ideas that we had entered the American Art Museum with. Inspiration comes easily when inside the SAAM. Through the use of projection, images of these works will actually be incorporated in the design of the production. Early political cartoons and satirical drawings from other sources will also be projected as panoramic backdrops. We don't want to give too many secrets away, but just as these paintings captivate a patron to the museum, we will honor these great Hudson River School artists by reexamining and re-celebrating the prominent and bold moods of these works.


John Valentine Haidt's Young Moravian Girl

EL: As soon as you saw the painting Young Moravian Girl, you wanted to use it for the leading ballerina's costume in the role of Katrina. How did that shape your vision of her?

SW: Katrina is coquettish and a bit of a tease. The doe-eyed Young Moravian Girl combines subtlety with a splash of power, and this is something that will translate wonderfully to the ballet stage. With costume design, one has to be cautious of becoming muddy. There are a lot of characters on stage moving and expressing, so the designs must be independent with an underlying unifying theme. The Young Moravian Girl is the same as another member of her church, but like Katrina Van Tassel, she is grabbing and interesting on many levels.

EL: Tell us what style of music composer Matthew Pierce is using for this rural setting? I see his roots are in bluegrass growing up, but he is classically trained and has composed for many ballet companies internationally, including Washington Ballet.

SW: Yes, Matthew has worked with us on other projects, such as ALICE (in wonderland). Pierce imparts a bold and fresh energy to the early 19th century story-based folk music and country fiddling that inspired his score. I think audiences will be thrilled with his nuanced and adventurous sound performed live by a chamber orchestra and youth choir. Many of the choir's vocal lines are written in Gaelic to create a worldly and supernatural mood. One specific poem written by Pierce for this production was inspired by a dullahan, or a headless Gaelic mythical fairy. A line repeats, "Ghearradh tu as mo cheann, is liomsa do cheann," which translates to "You cut off my head, now yours is mine."

EL: Can you tell us the fate of Ichabod Crane or would that be a spoiler?

SW: This may not be Ichabod-specific...but heads will roll.

Posted by Jeff on January 27, 2015 in Five Question Interviews
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Picture This: An Iconic Artwork by Alfredo Jaar
January 21, 2015

Alfredo Jaar

Alfredo Jaar's Life Magazine April 19, 1968, © Alfredo Jaar, Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York

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.

Posted by Jeff on January 21, 2015 in American Art Here, Picture This
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Picture This: Wood Turning a Tree From Our Kogod Courtyard
January 20, 2015

The making of a vase

The making of a turned vase from one of the museum's black olive trees by Phil Brown

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).

Final Black Olive Vase

Final Vase by Phil Brown

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.

Posted by Jeff on January 20, 2015 in American Craft, Picture This
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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.
Nancy Graves

Nancy Graves' Pleistocene Skeleton

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!

Posted by Jeff on January 15, 2015 in American Art Everywhere, American Art Here, Five Question Interviews
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