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Luce Unplugged: Five Questions with Bad Moves
May 23, 2017


On Thursday, May 25, Bad Moves will perform in the Luce Foundation Center as part of Luce Unplugged, our free, monthly concert series presented with DC Music Download. This power pop quartet features members from well-known DC groups including The Max Levine Ensemble, Hemlines, Booby Trap and Art Sorority For Girls. In the spirit of collaboration and cautious optimism, Bad Moves creates music filled with tight drum beats, punk influence, and lyrics touching on their own personal DC experiences. We spoke with them to learn more about their creative process, and hear their perspective on the District's music scene.

Bad Moves

Bad Moves. Photo by Michael Cantor.

Eye Level: Each of you come from different bands around the District. What is it like collaborating together as Bad Moves?

Bad Moves: We started the band wanting to play around with anonymity, and the idea of a back-and-forth conversation. All of our other projects are focused around one singer, with other voices playing a supporting role. If you listen to this band's recordings, you might not always be able to tell who's singing what. That's very much a choice. The focal point isn't an individual or even several individuals. It's all about the group.

EL: How would you all describe the DC arts scene? What about the District's music scene do you value most?

BM: DC has a storied history of political action and activism and that's been a strong vein in the city's music, and among the people who support that music, for as long as any of us have known it. In recent years, we've seen a good deal more femme and queer-identified artists populating the scene and taking leading positions, which is always good news. Also, local shows are all-ages more often than not.

EL: How do you all continue to stay inspired?

BM: Inspiration is hard to come by right now, but we do find it in our friends and peers. We toured this spring with our friends Nana Grizol from Athens, Georgia, and their unqualified earnestness and positivity on stage can shake a smile out of almost anyone. We've done a few incredibly fun shows with a newer DC band called Bacchae, and we share a practice space with Chill Parents. We also had our faces blown off at a label showcase this winter by Sammus, a super-engaging and inventive rapper who wears a robot arm cannon onstage (like the hero from Metroid!). They had a room full of indie-rock kids standing at rapt attention.

EL: Tell us a little bit about the origin of the band's name, Bad Moves.

BM: We are four indecisive people who overthink everything. And, we scrambled to come up with a name before our first show; Bad Moves is kind of a best case scenario. But once we found it, it rang true to us. Perhaps that's because so much of the songwriting is about just getting through the day in a terrifying world, and that battle is often waged one tough decision or one good or bad move, at a time.

EL: What advice do you have for aspiring musicians in the District?

BM: Stop aspiring, that isn't a thing! Skill and savvy have their place, but most bands worth being in are an answer to the question, "Who do I want to hang out with?" When the answer to that is less obvious, investigate the resources that exist to connect people who want to make stuff. For the past few years, Girls Rock! DC (one of many Girls Rock camps all over the country) has thrown a spring benefit event called Hat Band, in which participants submit their name and preferred instrument, are matched up into groups, and have a few months to practice and put together a 10-minute set. It's always fun and exciting, and some of those randomly assembled bands end up sticking together.

Hear Bad Moves play on Thursday, May 25, in the Luce Center after a staff-led art talk on Ad Reinhardt's piece, Red and Blue Composition. Performance details can be found on Luce's Facebook page and check out Bad Moves' music before the show. See you Thursday!

Posted by Madeline on May 23, 2017 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Framing the City: Mean Streets and Urban Photography
May 19, 2017


American cities went through a period of upheaval and transformation in the period following World War II due to many factors, from economic downturns to highway construction that cut through established communities and migrations to the suburbs. The changes were particularly hard in African American, Latino, and working class neighborhoods. The exhibition, Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography, takes as its starting point, the response by Latino artists to the "urban crisis," a term that emerged in the 1960s to refer to the changes that were going on in many cities throughout the United States. The exhibition title is inspired by author Piri Thomas, who grew up in El Barrio (aka Spanish Harlem), and captured the decline of the urban environment in his memoir Down These Mean Streets, published in 1967.

Photographers working at this time, particularly in New York City and Los Angeles, approached the urban landscape with a similar intent, and, as the exhibition illustrates, with a varying degree of technique, vision, and even activism. Down These Mean Streets features ninety-three photographs by ten photographers: Manuel Acevedo, Oscar Castillo, Frank Espada, Anthony Hernandez, Perla de Leon, Hiram Maristany, Ruben Ochoa, John Valadez, Winston Vargas and Camilo José Vergara, who were driven to document and reflect on the transformation of American cities beginning in the late 1950s. According to E. Carmen Ramos, curator of Latino art at SAAM, the exhibition grew out of her desire to learn more about Espada's work and the world he had documented. Born in Puerto Rico in 1930, Espada migrated to the United States when he was nine years old. After serving in the Air Force, he attended the New York Institute of Photography in New York City on the GI Bill. He became a photographer about the same time he became involved with the civil rights movement. His portraits show a great humanity and poet's eye for bringing a subject's inner life into focus.

In addition to portraiture, the exhibition features cityscapes, interventionist approaches, and serial projects, such as Vergara's time-lapse work. In 65 East 125th Street, Harlem he photographs the same site year after year, using color photography to highlight the resourcefulness of urban residents and business owners during periods of economic decline and the cultural history embedded in public spaces. Although there is variation in technique and approach among photographers, the works featured in Mean Streets share the same common denominator: to document the urban landscape and the people who inhabit it.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has one of the most important and comprehensive collections of Latino art in the nation. This exhibition is the latest example of a major collecting initiative, still underway at the museum, to build a significant collection of Latino art in the nation’s capital. All works in Mean Streets are in our permanent collection; and many are new acquisitions. The Latino Initiatives Pool of the Smithsonian Latino Center provided generous support for the new acquisitions featured in this exhibition. Mean Streets remains on view through August 6, 2017.

Watch Mean Streets curator, E. Carmen Ramos talk about the exhibition:

Posted by Howard on May 19, 2017 in American Art Here
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Reading Into the Throne: On James Hampton's Notebook
May 16, 2017


James Hampton notebook

James Hampton's notebook, written in an invented script.

An expanded presentation of the now iconic Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly (aka The Throne) by James Hampton is currently on view in the newly installed and reimagined galleries for folk and self-taught art at SAAM. Created during a period of about fourteen years, and representing Hampton's total known artistic output, Hampton created the throne in response to several religious visions that prompted him to prepare for Christ's return to earth.

Anticipating the second coming, he created a visionary installation, assembling an altar-like throne with found objects from his work in a federal office building and his Shaw neighborhood in Washington, DC, including burned-out light bulbs, discarded furniture, old desk blotters, and empty jelly jars. He covered many of the elements with salvaged silver and gold foil, and put it all together in a carriage house he rented near the boarding house where he lived.

James Hampton

James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly has been one of SAAM's most popular artworks since its acquisition in 1970.

Hampton made over 180 individual elements for his installation, which vary in size, detail, and state of finish. The current larger configuration of the throne includes two items that are on view for the first time: a chalkboard showing some of Hampton's sketches or working plans for the throne and a small book he kept, written primarily in an invented or "asemic" script, meaning it is unreadable or lacking specific semantic content. Hampton referred to himself as "Director, special projects for the state of eternity," as well as "Saint James," an echo of Saint John who was divinely instructed to record his vision of the second coming in a secret script in a small book.

Hampton, too, felt he was divinely inspired in his writing and the creation of the throne. He may have believed his arcane "spiritual" script to be the result of communication with a higher being—the word of God as received by him. "It's an enigmatic book," says Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at SAAM, "but it gives us insight into how much he wanted to fulfill this role and be present if this event he believed in was going to happen."

Over the years, a handful of people including scholars and art historians have tried to decode Hampton's writing, but nobody has succeeded. It seems he invented his own language. This may have been a conscious act or a symbolic transcription of his visions. Another possibility is that he wrote it in a spiritually-induced trance, that it is a "spirit script," or automatic writing akin to glossographia (a graphic variation of glossolalia) or "writing in tongues." Hampton's writing, however, seems more measured and controlled than that which would have been written by somebody in an ecstatic state.

Though Hampton's writing remains a mystery, when we're standing in front of the throne, our eye gradually fixes on the reassuring words he attached to the top in silver foil, "Fear Not."

Posted by Howard on May 16, 2017 in American Art Here
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In This Case: 42nd Street Nocturne
May 10, 2017


Xavier Barile

Xavier Barile's 42nd Street Nocturne

As a visual for our film series Movies at SAAM, we've been using Xavier Barile's 42nd Street Nocturne. But did you know this painting hangs in the Luce Foundation Center? Situated in case 36B, Barile's small impressionistic painting shows New York City's 42nd Street Apollo Theatre aglow beneath a starry sky. Not only does this piece exemplify mid-20th-century American art, but it touches on key themes found within the history of film.

Barile's painting depicts moviegoers filtering in and out of the theater, which advertises the 1953 film, The Moon is Blue, directed by Otto Preminger. The subject of the film, a young naïve woman seduced by a playboy architect, was radical for its time. The Moon is Blue made headlines for its refusal to conform to the strict censorship of the Motion Picture Production Code adopted as a standard in 1930. The film was criticized for using words like virgin, seduce, and pregnant. One woman wrote The New York Times describing the film as, "amoral, distasteful and flagrantly suggestive." Despite the film's indelicate connotations, it was a hit. In fact, the Times reported people were going back to see the movie two or three times.

Not only did this film push societal limits, but Barile's modernist and romantic style also pushed Americans' understanding of good art. As part of the Ashcan School, Barile focused on representing everyday scenes of society and culture and his work showed that ordinary streets and people can be beautiful.

Whether on canvas or on film, pushing boundaries is an important character in the history of art. Check out the calendar for the next Movies at SAAM to see what other relevant art subjects we explore! Next up: this Saturday, May 13, May 13, Hockney, a 2014 documentary by Randall Wright about the artist David Hockney. Show starts at 3 p.m. in the museum's McEvoy Auditorium.

Posted by Ryan on May 10, 2017 in American Art Here, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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JFK: American Visionary
May 5, 2017


JFK preparing speech

Kennedy preparing a speech, Baltimore, September 1960. © Paul Schutzer (Courtesy The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The Kennedys unofficially brought America into the modern world with their youth and glamour. Long before our phones became cameras, they knew the power of photography and their well-documented lives—triumphs and sorrows—are an indelible part of our collective memory. SAAM's director, Stephanie Stebich, stated, "The aptly named exhibition American Visionary: John F. Kennedy's Life and Times is a fitting tribute to the 35th President, who understood the importance of the arts in American society and the power of images to convey the spirit and aspirations of a country."

JFK's was the first modern presidential campaign, and employed the "Mad Men" talents of Madison Avenue as well as a slew of gifted photographers, photojournalists, and newsreel cameramen. In fact, this decade, from the early 1950s through the early 1960s is referred to as a golden age of photojournalism in America. JFK was the most photographed politician the country and the world had ever seen. According to John Jacob, the McEvoy Family Curator for Photography at SAAM, "politics and the media found common ground in the figure of JFK...and photography made John F. Kennedy's vision for America real to its citizens." JFK's personal charisma, private moments, and political accomplishments shine through in this exhibition.

Lawrence Schiller, a former Life magazine photojournalist (who ironically was assigned to Nixon's failed presidential campaign) organized the exhibition and reviewed 34,000 photographs, before choosing seventy-seven "images that told the story." The exhibition is divided into three sections: The Making of JFK, The Road to the White House, and the New Frontier. Included in the exhibition at SAAM are photographs by Schiller as well as Jacques Lowe, Yale Joel, Philippe Halsman, Paul Schutzer, Henri Dauman, and other noted photographers. A few are also credited as "photographer unknown," such as one depicting a JFK campaign event in Massachusetts from 1952 that Schiller pointed out during a brief tour of the galleries. Here, a hobbled JFK recovering from back surgery braces himself on crutches while what appears to be an endless line of women in hats wait on line to shake his hand. Charisma, indeed.

Schiller also reported that Caroline Kennedy's favorite image of her father is Paul Schutzer's photo (above) from September, 1960. JFK sits in a chair, preparing a speech for a Democratic rally in Baltimore, seemingly unaware that he has company. The window behind him is filled with the faces of smiling, adoring fans. In two of the most poignant images, a baby Caroline looks up at her father from her crib with all-knowing eyes, while in another JFK walks a pajama-clad JFK Jr. through the White House, presumably to bed. Each image speaks volumes.

Schiller's goal was to create an exhibition without sentiment. In the last room, images pay tribute to JFK's initiatives such as the Peace Corps, Civil Rights, and the space program. The exhibition concludes with images of the Kennedys landing at Love Field on November 22, 1963, the president's assassination, funeral, and a haunting image of a veiled Jacqueline Kennedy, when the photos would come to an end.

American Visionary: John F. Kennedy's Life and Times is based on the book JFK: A Vision for America, edited by Stephen Kennedy Smith and Douglas Brinkley. The exhibition remains on view through September 17, 2017.

Posted by Howard on May 5, 2017 in American Art Here
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