Light Fantastic: Gabriel Dawe in Conversation
July 6, 2016
The final program in the WONDER series of artist talks featured Gabriel Dawe in conversation with Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Renwick Gallery. Dawe's Plexus A1, one of the nine room-filling installations commissioned for the exhibition, spins a new riff on the theme of alchemy: it turns thread into light. The work of art is comprised of nearly sixty miles of sewing thread, yet in Dawe's hands, the end result is a tactile rainbow prism that has delighted hundreds of thousands of vistors during the exhibition's run.
Dawe's work also has a deeper biographical resonance, stemming from his boyhood in Mexico, and calls into play gender and identity issues. (for bonus points, "plexus" is defined as a branching network of vessels or nerves within the body). His grandmother would teach his sister to embroider, but because he was a boy in a macho society, he was not taught. In his twenties, Dawe learned how to embroider, and began to work with textiles and thread. His artworks, which he refers to as "ethereal structures that [are] reminiscent of light," are meditative installations that entice visitors to take a closer look.
WONDER, including Plexus A1, closes this Sunday, July 10, 2016. In case you missed Dawe's talk, you can watch our archived webcast.
We now have a robust library of WONDER videos featuring the artists talking about their works and often giving us a behind-the-scenes look at their process. Check out the nearly two dozen WONDER-related videos on our YouTube Channel's playlist.
Making Connections at the Renwick: Everything Clicks
June 30, 2016
The Renwick's reinstallation of more than eighty objects from its permanent collection—Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery—brings together artists working in media as diverse as vinyl, denim, quartz, and glass. It also contrasts the return of old favorites such as Ghost Clock by Wendell Castle and Box of Falling Stars by Lenore Tawney with recent acquisitions by a new generation of craft artists who are shaking up traditional notions of craft by blending new ideas with new technology. In selecting both pioneering and contemporary pieces, Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Renwick, explores the underlying current of craft as a balancing, humanistic force in the face of an ever-more efficiency-driven, virtual world.
Connections is designed to break free of traditional exhibition layout based on chronology or material. Instead, the exhibition seeks to connect objects by stories and relationships, much the same way that clicking on a hyperlink help us make connections online. The exhibition does away with hierarchical distinctions and the idea of the curator's voice as absolute authority, instead presenting works that engender ever-evolving associations and interpretations. Visitors are encouraged to find their own path through a vast network of possibilities that highlight explicit connections as well as subtle, unexpected resonances among the artworks on view.
"Craft objects do not exist in a vacuum," Atkinson said. "Each artwork tells many stories, and each is made even more interesting through relationships to other objects and ideas. As that object continues to develop meanings and spawn questions through contact with other artworks, it remains vital in a changing world."
Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery opens July 1 and remains on view indefinitely.
Romaine Brooks: Body of Work
June 28, 2016
In honor of the current exhibition The Art of Romaine Brooks, eminent scholars Cassandra Langer, Sylvia Kahan, and Helen Langa, joined SAAM's chief curator Virginia Mecklenburg, for a discussion that shed new light onto the artist's life and times. Romaine Brooks emerged as an impressive figure who flouted conventional roles for women and created a unique persona, aesthetic, and body of work.
Cassandra Langer, art historian and author of Romaine Brooks: A Life, was the first speaker on the program. She has devoted the majority of her professional career to discovering and uncovering the artist and asking the question: Who was Romaine Brooks? As a woman artist, lesbian, and longtime partner of American ex-pat Natalie Barney, Brooks flourished in the years between the two world wars. As Langer described, "She stands alongside Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein as a major participant in the intellectual and artistic life of her times and beyond." Langer presented a fully realized portrait of the artist, placing her in the context of her times as well as our own.
The second speaker, Sylvia Kahan, professor of music at CUNY College of Staten Island is a pianist as well as a musicologist. She devoted her talk to the vibrant cultural life in Paris that was thriving in Romaine's day, especially the salon hosted by Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse Edmond de Polignac, a musical patron and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune (and, incidentally, one of twenty-four children sired by Isaac Singer). She was also, briefly Romaine's lover and the subject of a painting by Brooks that is still missing.
The third and final speaker, Helen Langa, associate professor of art history at American University discussed American lesbian artists from 1935-1950, including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, as well as less well-known couples on this side of the pond, such as Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle Devaux Clements, printmakers and life partners. "It was not just in Sapphic Paris that American lesbian artists created successful professional careers," Langa told us. Her talk should be de rigueur for all students of art history and gender studies.
What emerged from the afternoon's presentations was a more complex and spirited portrait of Romaine, as a woman, artist, and lover, fully engaged in life. Though she titled her unpublished memoir, No Pleasant Memories, and often worked in a muted palette of hushed grays, blacks, and white, she wrote in her journal, "A day without laughter was not worth living." Who knew? The discussions also provided insights into gender, queer studies, and lesbian artists and affections in the first half of the twentieth century.
What also emerged was the idea that there are paintings by Brooks that have yet to be discovered. It has long been assumed that Brooks stopped painting for more than thirty years before, at the age of 87, completing one final canvas of her friend Uberto Stozzi, included in the exhibition. New research, however, presented during the discussion revealed that Brooks's letters from those decades included requests for more and more art supplies. If this is the case, then where are the missing paintings (in addition to the portrait of Winnaretta Singer)? It's a mystery that scholars are continuing to unravel.
If you missed the panel discussion watch our webcast:
View an online gallery of Romaine Brooks's work in the exhibition. The Art of Romaine Brooks remains on view through October 2, 2016.
Conserving Duane Hanson's Woman Eating
June 23, 2016
For a decade, Duane Hanson's life-like sculpture Woman Eating has fascinated SAAM visitors. With funding provided by the Smithsonian's Women's Committee, conservators were able to research, examine, document, and treat this work for future generations to continue to enjoy.
Duane Hanson created hyperrealistic sculptures based on casts of his family, friends, and models. He painted these fiberglass and polyester resin casts and dressed them with clothing and accessories from secondhand stores. Although Hanson's sculptures elicit humorous double takes from museum visitors, they also offer profound and witty commentaries on lives often overlooked in our society.
Hanson's sculptures pose challenges to long-term display because their various media require diverse approaches to cleaning. Even though light, humidity, and temperature are carefully monitored in the museum, over time, Woman Eating accrued a fine layer of grime, her clothes and hair were covered in dust, and various parts of the work were in need treatment.
Conservators carefully examined and documented Hanson's artwork in order to understand the best way to clean each part of the piece. For example, Hanson wanted the grocery bag to look used, but the paper became brittle with age, and the original tear widened with the pressure of the bag's contents. While aging cannot be reversed, conservators were able to stabilize the paper to prevent further deterioration and mended part of the tear. The grocery bag is only one component of the work though. Hanson employed a wide range of materials to give Woman Eating its complexity, including fiberglass, artificial and animal leather, napkins, metal, plastic, hair (likely synthetic), salt and pepper shakers with presumed salt and pepper, cotton shoe string, polyester resin, rhinestones, newsprint, paper, twine, fabric, oil paint, cardboard, and glass. Conservators had to perform extensive research on the complex and varied materials of the piece to understand how they aged and the best way to clean the work while protecting it from any chemicals or cleaning techniques that might cause damage.
Conservator Jamie Gleason will present a free lecture about this conservation project on Wednesday, June 29th at 4:00 p.m. in SAAM's MacMillan Education Center.
Luce Artist Talk: Five Questions with Anne Bouie
June 20, 2016
Join us this Saturday, June 25 at 1:30 p.m. for the latest installment of our Luce Artist Talks series. This month's talk features mixed-media artist Anne Bouie, who strives to "express the universal themes of order, harmony, growth, beauty, and transcendence" in her work. Bouie's pieces are inspired by the traditions of indigenous cultures and southern American folk artists and she will talk about the artworks in the Luce Foundation Center that inspire. The Luce Artist Talks series is presented in collaboration with CulturalDC's Flashpoint Gallery.
Eye Level: You studied history and education in school, but not art. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
Anne Bouie: One of my professors at UC Riverside suggested I apply for STEP (Secondary Teacher Education Program) at Stanford. Once there, I explored getting a degree in Administration and Policy Analysis; doing so required a graduate degree outside the School of Education. I chose history because, as William Faulkner said, "the past is never dead. It's not even past." The traditional interpretation of the African-American experience, particularly the antebellum period, has not served anyone in America very well, but especially Black people. Consciously addressing the impact of the interpretation and presentation of history was my approach when teaching, and is a primary theme that guides my work as an artist. Connected to this is my use of history and education to explore the cultures and beliefs of indigenous peoples prior to the advent of modern, organized religion.
I have observed there are universal and timeless spiritual principles found among peoples across time and space, such as regard for the Earth and all sentient beings, ancestors, elders, children, and the notion of realms and beings beyond those that the five senses can access.
EL: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
AB: There wasn't a moment when I knew I wanted to make art. I have always foraged and collected components used in work simply because they were interesting or beautiful. My involvement was a response to an invitation from Aziza Gibson-Hunter to participate in the show, Found hosted by The Graham Collection in 2006.
The transition from "urban educator" to "full-time" artist has been gradual —after a person has invested so much time and effort in one area, it feels inappropriate to just walk away from it. However, as my art has manifested over the years, it has required ongoing historical research and study.
EL: How has living and working in Washington, D.C. affected your work?
AB: Being in Washington has afforded access to the eastern terrain, geography and botanicals not found elsewhere. The history found in the District, particularly in the African American community, is also a treasure.
EL: Can you describe your artistic process for us? Do you have any particular rituals when you are working?
AB: I experience art as a spiritual process, and one that I do not do alone. Meditation and prayer are integral aspects of my process. I feel most connected when I am making art. I allow guidance in, I take risks, I listen, and feel open to the present. I have often been given ideas and techniques I did not consciously sit down and "figure out." Sometimes, I can see a finished piece, and it is as if it almost composes itself —as long as I do not get in the way. I keep a sketchbook so I can put ideas down as they come to me. My work involves a lot of "moving parts," so foraging and gatherings are a large part of my process. I am very busy in the fall, because everything ripens then.
I organize and sort what I've collected so I am able to access things easily. I may not know when or how I will use a particular object, but if it is interesting and compelling, I gather it and wait for its time and place. I like to work in series so I can explore different iterations on a particular theme or idea. Sometimes things don't work and I am forced to try until the "aha" of the fit shows up.
EL: How do you hope other people respond to your artwork?
AB: I aspire to make work that resonates at the aesthetic, functional, and experiential levels. I want to make work that has "soul and sense" where it touches and connects with the soul and spirit. I also want it to say something to the mind and the intellect. The stories and messages of my work may evolve over time, and can continue to reveal or illuminate new perspectives, energy and information for the viewer. Each piece resonates differently to the viewer.
Bouie's current installation, The Four Movements of the Sun, is on view at Flashpoint Gallery until July 9. After her talk in the Luce Center, attendees may visit the gallery with Bouie to continue the conversation there.