Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Washington, DC - December exhibitions

I had not been to the Phillips Collection since its 2006 expansion, so it was a surprise to see the new entrance and a bit of a puzzle to find the galleries and get oriented. Wandering through, I think I found most of the art, but it seemed that I was sneaking down little hallways and up and down little staircases to discover more rooms of art. Light, airy galleries house Washington School abstract paintings; the rest of the permanent collection looks quite lovely in the arcaded galleries upstairs. I had the idea to see the Man Ray exhibition there and then compare it to the Man Ray exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. However, we never got to the Jewish Museum, perhaps in part because I got a little bored in the Phillips show. Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens included a lot of Man Ray photographs of African objects, plus several of the objects he photographed and other photographers' images of them and other works. I understand that the thesis of the exhibition was that Man Ray's interest, and his photographs, effected the change in the understanding of these objects, from their being ethnographic specimens to being works of art in the Western sense. The Phillips' website explains it quite clearly. Nonetheless, the disjuncture between the photographs and the descriptions of the objects' purpose, and the display of the objects without real cultural context, became frustrating. I believe this is an important exhibition, but sadly, it seemed to reinforce the modernist and contemporary practice of separating African objects from their meaning at the same time it uses the photographs to increase our awareness of their beauty and abstract power.

Perhaps this is where I should mention the Yinka Shonibare MBE exhibition at the National Museum of African Art. Shonibare was born in Britain in 1962 and raised in Nigeria. His figures, figure tableaux, and videos of people in 18th-century-style dress made of brightly-colored and densely patterned cloth that is popular in Africa refer to European colonialism and its effects on Africa. While each composition is different - the figures do different things – the theme is always the same. The opening work in the exhibition is a sculpture based on Fragonard's painting The Swing at the Wallace Collection in London. I love the idea and appreciate that he embraces the sexual reference in the woman's shoe flying through the air. But the work would be so much stronger if he had left out the very fake plants that surround the swing. Perhaps his intent was to make the object look tacky; if so, he succeeds. Shonibare purchases much of the cloth for his costumes at Brixton Market in England; for some sculptures he commissioned fabric designs specifically related to the subject of the sculpture. For example, the headless man drinking from a water fountain wears clothing with plumbing designs. The variations in activities and number of actors did not significantly expand his view, to my mind. I had seen individual works by Shonibare in several exhibitions and was looking forward to the retrospective. Perhaps one Shonibare makes a strong visual impact and historical statement; several together may actually dilute that impact.

Also at the Phillips Collection I stumbled upon Intersections Art Projects, described on the Phillips' website as "intersections between old and new traditions, modern and contemporary art practices, and museum spaces and artistic interventions." Tayo Heuser had 3-dimensionally shaped canvases titled Pulse, apparently inspired by Mark Rothko's works in the museum, but in much softer colors and much more linear compositions, that were displayed on the walls of the main staircase. They are very pleasant to look at, abstract and tactile. A hand-drawn video by Jennifer Wen Ma, Brain Storm, of a person and a horse walking through an increasingly turbulent landscape, caught and kept my attention (very unusual for me), although I hardly noticed the images from it on the windows of the museum bridge. While the changing textures and shadows of the landscape were visually appealing, the steadfastness of the horse and man and their loneliness and togetherness kept me thinking. Finally, a wonderful string construction by Barbara Josephs Liotta, called Icarus, shaped and occupied space, had an elegant shape, and moved slightly with the currents of air in the gallery. It seemed to connect to other string compositions I've seen lately – the Tomas Saraceno at the Venice Biennale and a wonderful installation in the London Hayward Gallery's Walking in My Mind exhibition last summer, in which Japanese artist Chiaru Shiota stretched black cords across an entire room, leaving just a path for the viewer and some white shapes. And it makes me think of Fred Sandback (1943-2003), who made enormously evocative huge sculptures from single strands of yarn.

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