Monday, 10 January 2011

December 6, Sackler, Freer, Hirschhorn

Heading for new exhibitions at the Sackler, I entered through the Freer, which was closer to the Metro Station. I spent hours at the Freer, first admiring and struggling to understand the small exhibition of neolithic jades in shapes the purpose of which seems still to be unknown. Bi, beautiful discs of varied colors of stone and cong, squared vessles from neolithic times were found in profusion in tombs from the Liangzhu culture, dating from 3300 to 2250 BCE.

Cong, often found arranged around the body in tombs
Bi - these are all quite large, too big to wear as pendants

Glyph scratched onto a bi
Next door was a display of the Freer's Chinese bronzes. The only thing I remember from the Chinese Civilization course I took in college is that Shang bronzes have never been equalled in virtuoso casting technique and I've marvelled at the intricate designs on these strangely shaped vessels for decades. A greenish one that combines three animals in this grouping particularly fascinated me.

Ewer in the form of a tiger, owl and water bird, ca. 1300-1200 BCE

Then there was a large and comprehensive exhibition of ceramics from Southern Japan, from Kyushu. There were very few people in the museum and we occasionally commented to each other on how amazing the objects were.

After the obligatory stop in Whistler's Peacock Room, I wandered into galleries with a focus on Whistler's Nocturnes, amazingly modern paintings of atmospheric landscapes, including moody views of London. I was particularly struck by Symphony in Gray: Early Morning Thames, 1871. It seemed totally contemporary, capturing the scene and the feel of the scene in so few details as to approach abstraction but still have substantial narrative content. I've seen the Freer's Whistlers before, but this group seemed especially powerful, innovative and evocative. Later in the Sackler three photographs by Fiona Tan (West Pier Brighton, 2006) reminded me of this painting. There are several images of it on the web, but to me they all look boring and washed out. Seeing it in the frame helps a little, and the dark red walls also helped to focus attention on it.

Having recently done some research on contemporary Chinese art for a women's research club I belong to, I wanted to see the Xu Bing Monkeys Reaching for the Moon in the Sackler. It's still a charming manifestation of the concept - a chain of wooden carvings of the word for "monkey" in multiple languages - stretching from the skylight to a reflecting pool at the bottom of the staircase.

I was particularly interested in a show at the Sackler of bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia, which I visited in 1987, a time when that museum was in poor condition - there were many bats on the ceiling - and I saw for the first time the flowers and coins left by people who still worshipped the Buddhist images on display. The exhibition at the Sackler is relatively small and quite representative, but hardly amazing.

The Sackler also had a small exhibition of the Shahnama, the epic poem of Iran's legendary and quasi-historical story up to the Arab conquest in the seventh century, completed by the Persian poet Abul-Qasim Firdawsi in 1010 CE. As "the most potent expression of Persian literary and national identity to this day," (exhibition brochure), it sparked magnificently illustrated editions commissioned by rulers of the area for centuries. The Sackler exhibition included just a few selected paintings of scenes from the narrative, but by the time I had looked at them, I had a good idea of the gist of the story and had also enjoyed the beauty of their lush detail.

I quickly wandered through the Fiona Tan display, not having patience to give the videos their due, and a show of Chinese objects, watching as a small child ran around the galleries and hid behind the pedestals and I hoped she didn't knock something over. I left before she did. By the time I left, I had spent 5 hours in the museum, admittedly a few minutes of that time captured by a Bollywood video starring Akshay Kumar being played in the museum shop.

Next stop was the Hirschhorn where there was a Guillermo Kuitca exhibition. Kuitca is an artist who has fascinated me for many years. The first works I remember by him were partially obscured maps of places I couldn't identify and so decided they didn't exist. Later I'd seen mattress works and some painted floor plans. My notes indicate that the first work in the exhibition was worth the entire trip. It  is From 1 to 30,000, 1980, ink on canvas of all of those numbers, memorializing the disappeared from Argentina's Dirty War of 1978-1983.

In the Sackler show his maps were mostly on mattresses, and instead of being of obscure places (probably in Poland or Czech Republic) they centered on the stretch of the United States between Kansas City, Oklahoma City to the south and Salina to the west. I could locate Lawrence and Baldwin City! Home!

Much of the work relates to theater in some way. Some dark paintings, suggesting Euro-trash stage sets and titled Seven Last Songs (seems a conflation of Strauss's Four Last Songs and Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ) suggested a tragic life view, and a recurrent theme of the floor plan of a relatively small house also suggests some sad recollections. Later Kuitca's works depict the insides of historic theaters, using collage rather than painting, sometimes collage black or red lines. The show is huge, with a lot of maps, theater proscenia or floor plans, and floor plans of large institutions. The latter were four of the seven canvases of the Tablada Suite, 1991, acrylic and graphite paintings of detailed floor plans of huge institutions - hospital, prison, cemetary and stadium - on huge soft-toned canvases - buff, gold, lavender and cream. A large composite painting using posters from Wagner's Ring also connects to the theater, as did many of the small works on paper depicting programs and announcements that seemed to have been damaged and distorted by water. At the beginning and end of the show Kuitca included a particularly sterile image of an airport baggage carousel, which he likened to an empty stage in the cell phone voice over. In the end I found many of the works inspiring and thought provoking, but the exhibition went on a little too long.

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