Patrick Dougherty: Branching Out
June 1, 2016
"Everything you can do with a pencil you can do with a stick," artist Patrick Dougherty remarked the other evening at a talk in the Renwick's Grand Salon, as he likened his craft to the art of drawing. "Once these things come out of the woods with the overtones of nature, they become sticks with which to draw." Dougherty's installation, Shindig in the exhibition, WONDER, is a veritable forest of woven willow osier pods that perform the alchemical act of transforming the everyday into something magical. Part fairy-tale shelter, part naturescape, the installation invites the visitor to enter, explore, and wonder.
Dougherty began his inspiring talk describing the day he decided to chuck the suit-and-tie life and become the artist he felt was his calling. He relays the path to his becoming a working artist, and how he found his voice with natural materials such as sticks, saplings, and branches. A self-described woodsman, Dougherty makes use of the materials around him. Underbrush and woods near his home in North Carolina, are "plentiful and renewable," what he referred to as "a giant warehouse at your fingertips."
Throughout the nearly one-hour presentation, Dougherty showed images of his work and discussed the development of his personal aesthetic. He looked inward to his development as an artist and outward to the world around him. His environmental works—sculptures with the DNA of drawings—bring us in direct contact with nature. Many of his installation photos show how people of all ages enjoy interacting with his architecturally inspired creations. Dougherty builds it, and yes, people come.
When asked during the Q and A after the talk, about what inspired him to create Shindig, on view in the Renwick Gallery through July 10, Dougherty replied, "When I saw the space I loved it. It's such a enormously beautiful space. [I thought] what I need to do is make it look like nature is taking the building back."
In a case you missed Patrick Dougherty's talk, watch it in its entirety.
Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions
May 27, 2016
A master of printmaking and sculpture, Martin Puryear was born in Washington, DC, in 1941 where his childhood included frequent visits to the Smithsonian and an early exposure to art from around the world. Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions, opening today at SAAM, is a homecoming for the artist, and the opportunity for us to take a deeper look at Puryear's career. The more than seventy objects on view include early works from the artist's college days and time in Sierra Leone, while serving in the Peace Corps, as well as recent works, such as a maquette for Big Bling, his larger-than-life sculpture that debuted in New York's Madison Square Park earlier this month.
The exhibition is the first to show Puryear's works on paper on equal footing with the artist's sculptures. What emerges is a language of Puryear's own making, as he realizes these forms across time. Rather than a linear process, the word Puryear uses to describe his practice is "spiral." His visual vocabulary transcends time and media. Experimenting with scale, materials and varying levels of abstraction, his evocative forms often elude specific interpretations. At the recent dedication of Big Bling, Puryear remarked, "I tend not to tell people what they’re looking at when they’re in the presence of my work. I trust people’s eyes. I trust their imagination. I trust my work to declare itself to the world.”
Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions remains on view through September 5.
Seeing Things (16): Time and the Photographic Image
May 24, 2016
This is the sixteenth 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.
Photography has a way with time. Two works of art, both photographic series currently on view, speak to each other in a poignant dialogue without words. In the Lincoln Gallery, on SAAM's third floor, Nicholas Nixon's The Brown Sisters can be seen on the wall adjacent to Camilo José Vergara's series 10828 S. Avalon Blvd., LA, a work whose compression is echoed in the title's insistence on abbreviations.
Nixon photographed the four Brown sisters (his wife, Bebe, and her three siblings) once a year beginning in 1975. The forty black-and-white photos capture the women over four decades, while the Vergara series looks at the life of a single building in Los Angeles over a span of thirty-three years, 1980-2013. In a way, we know more about the various lives of the building than we do about the Brown sisters. At least the building comes with identifiers. In 1980, when Vergara first photographed 10828 S. Avalon, the building was a bleach-white storefront church, "The Greater Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church." Sixteen years later, it morphed into "Joe's Auto Parts." Fast forward to 2013 and the building is now a house for sale, complete with a yard and fence.
Vergara's Avalon series captures the physical and demographic changes in a Los Angeles neighborhood. Is his intent to show the renaissance of a neighborhood or reflect on its forgotten past? In Nixon's work, we look for hints in the shifting intimacies between each photo, the play of light, an expression on a face, what time does to us. The Brown sisters aren't even named. Still, we travel with them over forty years. We imagine their stories. We catch glimpses of our own lives. We know them and we don't.
In her 1977 seminal collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote, that “to take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.”
Buildings and people change, but of course, not in the same ways. Human beings tell the most important stories just by living each day. One glance, one new wrinkle, one new grip of the hand and the story of the photograph changes, and with it our empathy for its subject.
Camilo José Vergara's work will be featured in SAAM's exhibition, Down These Mean Streets, opening April 14, 2017.
May's Handi-Hour at the Renwick
May 17, 2016
For May's Handi-hour you'll start by making your own loom using scrap cardboard from all those Amazon boxes you have lying around. Then string it with yarn to create coasters, mats, or whatever else you can imagine. Fuel your creativity with beers from Churchkey and music by David Andrew Smith. And, if you can't make it, watch the video for instructions and inspiration. This month's Handi-hour is sold out, but keep an eye on the calendar for July's Handi-hour tickets which go on sale July 5th.
SAAM Acquires Six Major Works by Bill Traylor
May 13, 2016
The Smithsonian American Art Museum just acquired six major works by Bill Traylor, an artist who was born into slavery around 1853-54, and first began his creative life as an elderly man, after living and working primarily as a sharecropper. His life spanned slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Great Migration. A self-taught artist who preferred to draw on discarded pieces of cardboard and left more than one thousand works by the time of his death, Traylor spent most of his last years homeless and living on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama. His drawn and painted images, often seemingly simple, ruminate on larger themes of struggle and freedom, and, in keeping with many folk practices, employ animals as allegorical stand-ins for humans. They contrast the world of the Southern plantation with that of urban Montgomery and comprehensively reflect a man coming to grips with a world of radical change.
According to Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at SAAM, "Traylor's works balance narration and abstraction and reflect both personal vision and black culture of his time." Traylor's nearly one-hundred years limns the history of African Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries. He was among the first generation of blacks to become American citizens. Traylors was first seen by the art world in the 1940s, but it was not until the 1982 exhibition Black Folk Art in America at the Corcoran Gallery of Art that his work garnered critical enthusiasm and popular appeal.
The recently acquired works will join the six already in the museum's collection. The twelve works of art will be featured in the first museum retrospective on Traylor's remarkable work, now being organized by Umberger and scheduled to open in March, 2018. SAAM will be the sole venue for the exhibition.