Throwback Thursday: Our America: The Legacy of a King
January 14, 2016

It's Throwback Thursday! And we at Eye Level have decided it's a great opportunity to bring back some of our interesting posts from the past. This Monday we will celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Curator E. Carmen Ramos discusses the legacy of Martin Luther King on contemporary Latino artists in our traveling exhibition Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art. The show is now up at the Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock, Arkansas until this Sunday, January 17. It then moves to the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, opening March 5, 2016 until May 29, 2016.

Dimas' Pariah

Marcos Dimas' Pariah

On Monday I reminded my kids that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is one of the most meaningful national holidays that we observe in the United States. Dr. King led a movement that urged our country to live up to one of its most fundamental ideals—that all people are created equal. Often referred to as a day of service, MLK Day should also be a time of reflection on the impact of the civil rights movement for all Americans.

The civil rights era is resonant in many works featured in Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art. Several artists in the exhibition came of age during the 1960s and 1970s when the movement thrived and had ripple effects in communities across the United States. Not only did activists and organizers like César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and Antonia Pantoja build on Dr. King's legacy and demand Latino equal rights in the arenas of labor and education, some Latino artists created works and organizations that challenged traditional racial hierarchies that undergirded American society.

Many artists found ways to marry their art and activism. Artists Ester Hernandez, Xavier Viramontes, Amado Peña, and members of the Royal Chicano Art Force, created posters used in marches and beyond that supported the activities of the United Farmworkers (UFW). A young Emanuel Martinez built the altar where César Chávez broke the twenty-five-day fast he undertook to protest unfair employment practices and unsuitable work conditions for migrant laborers.

Rupert Garcia and Malaquias Montoya also created posters in support of the UFW during their student years. Garcia and Montoya continued their activism through the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a student group that demanded ethnic studies across college campuses in California. Their works on view in Our America come from a later period in their careers, but still convey their on-going commitment to international human rights and domestic immigration reform. Montoya, in fact, created the screen-print Me Hechan de Monjado in 1983 as debates around the U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act intensified.

For Latino artists of Caribbean descent, the demand for racial equality and later Black pride was especially relevant to aspects of Latino history and culture. Artists Marcos Dimas and Jorge Soto Sánchez became cultural leaders of a Puerto Rican civil rights movement that pioneered in the exploration of African diasporic dimensions of Puerto Rican culture. Their works suggest that Afro-Puerto Rican subjects were both worthy of representation and investigation. Dimas' Pariah recasts a dejected member of society in his respectful portrait of a black person. Soto Sánchez created many works informed by his respect for Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean faith. His hand-colored screen-print includes figures that sprout heads from joints and other parts of the body and evoke ritualized spirit possession central to the practice of Santeria in which a deity "mounts" or "rides" a devotee.

These are just a handful works that reveal the links between the civil rights movement and Latino artists working since the 1960s. Visit Our America or buy the catalogue to see more connections in works by Juan Sánchez, Oscar Castillo, Frank Romero, Freddy Rodriguez and Franco Mondini-Ruiz and others.

Posted by Jeff on January 14, 2016 in American Art Elsewhere, Exhibition: Our America, Throwback Thursday
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Video Games: SAAM's Indie Arcade
January 12, 2016

Chris Totten, a professor at American University's Game Lab, coordinator for January 16th's Indie Coast to Coast Competition as part of SAAM's Indie Arcade, and head of the Independent Game Developer's Association (IGDA's) D.C. chapter, recently wrote about the intersection of video games and art.

Indie Arcade

From our first Indie Arcade in December 2014. Photo by Darren Milligan.

"Are games art?" That's an interesting question, one that both makers and consumers of games have been wrestling with for a while. For many, video games are a fact of life: you save your allowance for them and put them on your list to Santa. Growing up, I drew Mario, Mega Man, and and other heroes, then created my own. They have always been creatively important. However, even with these audiences, games were battling for their own legitimacy the way comics and film had done decades before.

In the summer of 2005, I attended a concert of Nobuo Uematsu's score for the Final Fantasy game series. Afterward, I spoke with two elderly concert season ticket holders in the seats next to me. They were impressed by the music and began asking about the series and about games in general. At the end of the night, they commented that hearing Uematsu's score changed how they viewed the medium they had previously only thought of as toys.

Seeing this reaction to just a slice of a game has greatly influenced my own work, from finding intersections between architecture and game level design to making games with fine arts materials. The arts have also been influenced by games. Concerts are now commonplace and game exhibitions are appearing in museums, such as The Art of Video Games at SAAM in 2012. Game making is also much more accessible today than it was when I was young. No difficult coding is required. Now you can select from many pre-made game-making engines and release your work to a variety of app stores and online markets.

SAAM's Indie Arcade is the great combination of two worlds uniting around games. In 2014, the museum was trying to find the next game-related event to match the success of The Art of Video Games. Likewise, I was the leader of a local game development scene trying to find opportunities for our developers to engage a big audience. Thanks to many, we were able to unite and put on the first public indie game arcade in a cultural institution.

Now in its second year, we will have games from 17 states and 6 countries! While you will see some popular commercial indie games, you will also see a variety of unusual and niche games that are both entertaining and interesting works of media art. Our goal is to go beyond rating games by their graphics, sound, "fun factor" and other technical aspects and start asking the questions of them that we would of other artistic mediums. We hope this marriage of art and games brings new opportunities for developers to find success and motivates new and diverse creators to join in the fun!

Posted by Kaylin on January 12, 2016 in Museums & Technology
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Irving Penn: The Painter's Eye
January 7, 2016

Irving Penn

Irving Penn, Beauty Shop, New York, 1939, printed 2001, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Promised gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation

Photographer Irving Penn, who died in 2009, and whose work is featured in the current exhibition, Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, combined fashion, art, and photography to create a style uniquely his own. He not only walked the line between the artistic and the commercial worlds, he led the way. The show, however, not only illuminates the art of photography in the 20th and 21st centuries, but it also shows the influence—and importance—of painting in Penn's work.

Penn's early training was in painting, drawing, and graphic design. His black-and-white works from his Philadelphia days often evoke surrealism. Look around the exhibit and you'll see portraits of the granddaddies of surrealism, including Joan Miró, Savador Dali, and Giorgio de Chirico. Penn's own Beauty Shop from 1939 was born perhaps because of Dali's use of mannequins in the 1938 International Exposition of Surrealism in Paris. In a later photograph, Irving Penn in a Cracked Mirror from 1986 (printed in 1990) the self-portrait shows Penn slightly off kilter, the left side of his face, distorted. It's a Cubist homage.

In another image in the exhibition, a woman's mouth with red lipstick has a bee at her lips. Though the photograph, simply titled Bee, is glossy enough for Madison Avenue, it also seems to recall one of the traditional elements of a classical still life: the bug or insect is depicted on cut fruit or flowers. Tempus, like beauty, is fleeting. A painter would know that and would make reference to it, here, as well in his New York Still Life from 1947.

And perhaps it works the other way around, too. Penn's W La Libertà from 1945 seems oddly prescient of Robert Motherwell's Viva from the following year. It's fascinating to think about the bounce between painting and photography in Penn's work.

Penn's eye was amazing and his scope was vast. He managed to synthesize the world around him, creating beautiful, often painterly, works of art.

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is up now through March 20, 2016.

Posted by Howard on January 7, 2016 in American Art Here
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Luce Unplugged: 5 Questions with Stronger Sex
January 5, 2016

Join us for the first Luce Unplugged of the year next Thursday, January 14th at 5:30 p.m. Stronger Sex, a beloved local experimental noise-pop band, will kick of the concert series' first show of the year. The show is presented with D.C. Music Download, who recently named Stronger Sex's song "Temptation" one of the best songs of 2015. As always, the event will feature a staff-led discussion on an artwork selected by the band as well as a cash bar with snacks and drinks. In anticipation of the show, we talked with the band's leader Johnny Fantastic about seasonal music taste, the band's film ambitions, and the multi-sensory experience Stronger Sex promise to bring to the Luce Center next week.

The Band Stronger Sex

Experimental noise band Stronger Sex will play Luce Unplugged on January 14. Photo by Jen Meller.

Eye Level: Does your music taste change with the seasons?

Johnny Fantastic: Every time the temperature drops below freezing, I know that special time of year has arrived when I must listen to Bjork's Vespertine over and over again. That record is just frosty, snowy goodness for a quiet night beside the hearth. All I have to do is close my eyes and imagine my row house is a tiny cottage in the Icelandic tundra, and Bjork does the rest! Of course in summer it's all about Volta!

EL: Who handles the art direction for Stronger Sex? How would you describe its aesthetic?

JF: One person who has had the most impact on our artistic direction from this crew has been Jen Meller. When I first expressed my interest in wearing make-up, even before Stronger Sex was performing, she took me under her wing and taught me all the secrets. Jen's amazing because you tell her, "I want to look like a nymph cavorting around the forest," and she doesn't even blink. Before you know it, you're standing in your own homemade jungle. When it comes to things like album art, flyers, logos, and the like, we have relied heavily on the artistic brilliance of Benjamin Schurr. Ben's amazing because he's the person who suggested I eat raw meat in In the Summertime video and I think to myself, "That's why we have you here, Ben, because no one else would think of something so provocative." But these ideas just flow out of Ben naturally: always from a place of genuine artistic expression.

EL: What do you love about D.C.'s music scene? What would you like to change?

JF: DC has a kind of optimism that I don't often find in other scenes. The "I'm so over it" attitude hasn't infected DC too much, but then again we aren't oversaturated with bands trying to make it. No one here expects to make any major media impact because the record industry pretty much ignores us. To me, this is very liberating because the temptation to conform is totally gone. It also means that if any of us are to make an impact beyond our district, it can only be by our own blood sweat and tears and, thus, on our own terms. That's what has inspired us to engage in the time honored DC tradition of creating our own label called Blight Records. Together with Br'er, CrushnPain, Dais and a host of enthusiastic artists and photographers working for free, we are all able to realize our artistic visions. And we are by far not the only label in town. So I wouldn't change anything about our scene other than to say "more good bands please! More, more, more!"

EL: Is your stage self an extension of you or a persona?

JF: The stage is a place where I can explore myself freely with the encouragement of enthusiastic audiences. It's weird, I suppose I'm not a very private person, and when I'm upset about things or excited about something, my first instinct is to want to share it through my stage show. If I can share a part of myself with others in a way that provides them with wonderful and innovative music, it just seems like a win-win!

EL: Does the venue in which you play affect how you put on a show?

JF: When we find ourselves on a Saturday night bill in a sweaty, drunken basement at some random person's house, we always loosen up things. I'll probably roll around the floor a lot more with Leah Gage (drum machine) or throw teddy bears at the audience or shotgun a beer or something wacky like that. We'll often forget about being as precise with our playing and opt more for exciting the audience. When we play a space like SAAM, we use it as an opportunity to take our time and play a more refined version of our set. We'll often try some of our moodier songs in addition to our "bangers." We also put a lot more work into lighting and stage design. It's all about what kind of feeling you want to achieve together with your audience. Is it "let's go nuts" or "let's see something beautiful?" Is it punk or theater? Stronger Sex can do both.

EL: What's next for Stronger Sex?

JF: MOVIES!!! Stronger Sex will be featured in a film called "Venus," a fictional film which explores gender dynamics in the DC music scene, among other issues. The film will be directed by Jen Meller and feature us performing as the fictional band "Our Lady of the Flowers." So we'll be spending the rest of the month trying to raise money for our Indiegogo campaign to help with the massive production costs and in February, we'll be doing all the acting, editing, and ultimately submitting to festivals.

Don't miss Stronger Sex perform in the Luce Foundation Center next Thursday, January 14th at 5:30 p.m.

Posted by Amelia on January 5, 2016 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Picture This: A 360 Degree Wonder
December 29, 2015


Plexus A1, Gabriel Dawe, 2015, Photo by Mike Tuttle

After a two year renovation, the opening of the Renwick Gallery and its inaugural exhibition, WONDER, have been a major success. The building has been updated to a 21st century elegance allowing the art within to shine.

Recently, we took 360ยบ photographs of each artwork installation in the show. The image above is a flattened panorama of Gabriel Dawe's piece, Plexus A1. To pan through each artwork's environment, check out our Flickr album of all nine artworks in the WONDER exhibition.

Posted by Jeff on December 29, 2015 in American Art Here, American Craft, Museums & Technology, Picture This
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