Saturday, May 11, 2019

2018 in Review: State of the Art

Hi everyone,

Art is hard for me to describe to people, but sometimes I leave museums and galleries feeling as if I had just been to a Sting concert. Here are some highlights from exhibits I saw around town last year.

The National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum
The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum are located in the middle of downtown D.C. and always offer something interesting to see whenever I venture inside. The two buildings are connected by an enclosed bright and airy courtyard, where visitors can have lunch, study on their laptops, or even catch a free performance.

Last year, I saw three inspiring exhibits, including the Obama presidential portraits, Don Ho Suh's Going Home, and Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now.

I waited a while to see the Obama presidential portraits because they drew such heavy crowds. The crowds are still there but have become more manageable since they separated the two, moving Michelle Obama's portrait to a different floor. When I was there, an older lady had a friend take a photo of her in front of each portrait. She smiled sweetly, holding up a cardboard sign that read, "I miss you so much, it hurts." Amen, sister.

Barack and Michelle Obama were the first to request African American artists – Kahinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively – to create the presidential portraits. Both works are as unique as their subjects, and they make me feel proud. See the gallery website for more information about these historic works of art (images below, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery).

President Obama by Kahinde Wiley
Mrs. Obama by Amy Sherald

Installation from Don Ho Suh's Almost Home,
courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum,
photo by Libby Weiler
I'd never heard of Korean artist Don Ho Suh, but he is known for creating fabric architecture. His Going Home exhibit explored his past through everyday objects, like radiators, fire extinguishers, ornate doorknobs, and kitchen sinks, all recreated in mesh fabric and stitched with excruciating detail. Some items were as small as nuts and bolts. The largest piece was an installation that you could walk through: a hallway of an former home, complete with doors to different rooms and a staircase. This guy has patience and knows how to sew! Check out the online gallery for more information about this amazing exhibit and to see a variety of its beautiful pieces.

Profile (new version), work and photo by Kumi Yamashita
That same day, I walked into Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now. In the hallways, framed paper cutout silhouettes of 19th century historical figures and everyday scenes lined the walls. Individual galleries housed large installations that presented silhouettes through the interplay of light and shadow or digital collaborations. I walked through, wondering how they cut strands of hair so precisely or how they positioned objects and crinkled paper just enough to create the perfect shadow profiles. See for yourselves in this online gallery and let me know!

The Renwick Gallery
The Renwick Gallery is located in the middle of D.C., near the White House. The first time I visited it, it showcased American craftsmanship in ornate furniture. Then, it shut down for renovation for a while. When it reopened, it felt like a different museum because the exhibits were installations you have to walk through, in, or under, offering a more immersive experience.

Closeup shot of a section of David Best's Temple, 
where visitors can add their own memorials 
and inscriptions
Last year's popular exhibit, No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, was a proper salute to the annual music and art festival that it celebrates. I have no desire to attend the Burning Man festival, which is located in the middle of the Nevada desert and heat and attended by swarms of people, so this exhibit was the closest I'll get to it.

Some art installations were planted around the city, which is a fitting match to the festival's reputed spectacle. The Renwick may have been just as crowded as the festival too but with good reason: pieces included giant colorful moving mushrooms, crafty sculptures made of scraps, outlandish costumes, intricate wooden cutout structures with lights that displayed patterned shadows on the walls, a memorial room with walls layered in similar wooden cutout patterns (where visitors could write notes to lost loved ones on blank wooden pieces and add them to the installation), and a historical timeline of the Burning Man festival itself. Visit the gallery's website for more information about this touring exhibit and to see its online gallery.

American University Museum at Katzan Arts Center
While waiting to cross a street, I saw an ad on the side of a city bus advertising a Ralph Steadman retrospective in D.C. at a museum I'd never heard of before. The American University Museum at Katzan Arts Center is a beautiful airy space for contemporary art. Though my friend drove us there, you can get there by Metro and then a free shuttle bus, so what are you waiting for?

Courtesy of Ralph Steadman Art Collection
I know of Ralph Steadman from his work with Hunter S. Thompson, illustrating his various Rolling Stone articles and flagship book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I also saw the 2012 documentary about him called For No Good Reason and highly recommend it. What I loved about that documentary and this exhibit is that they offer a bigger picture about the artist and his process.

Although Ralph Steadman may be most famous for his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson, Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective proved that he is a well-rounded artist with a variety of impressive work that continues to grow. While he documents the times through social and  political commentary, he can just as easily capture the whimsy of a classic children's story. This exhibit provided a free audio download that shared stories behind most of its pieces, so visitors could gain a clearer view of the artist's motivations and techniques. While everyone swarmed around Steadman's unflattering, accurate take on Donald Trump, my favorite pieces were his delicate and detailed illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, two of which are below. Visit Ralph Steadman's website to learn more. 

Which are your favorite museums? Make a plan to visit one soon. You never know what you'll find.

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