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.
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.
It's time for another Luce Unplugged Community Showcase, and we couldn't be more excited to team up with Washington City Paper to present Beauty Pill, next Friday, May 20th from 6 to 8 p.m. If you aren't familiar with this beloved D.C. band, check out their 2015 album Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are. Recorded in public view as an art project at Artisphere, the album was met with instant critical acclaim. NPR Music's Lars Gotrich named it the "best album of 2015" and Rolling Stone called it "one of the 15 best albums you may not have heard in 2015." We can't wait to hear their songs in the Luce next Friday, where, while listening to their set, you'll be able to grab a free drink sample from D.C. distillery Cotton & Reed, purchase a full-size cocktail, and enjoy the Luce Center's 3,000 plus artworks.
We talked to the band's leader, Chad Clark, about his views on performance, songwriting, and the experiment they plan to run with the show.
Eye Level: How do venue and audience affect your performance?
Chad Clark: When I was younger, I used to believe that if you were a "real artist," you would not let audience reception affect your art. If the work was "pure," it shouldn't matter how it was received. I now recognize this was a dumb stance. Performance is interactive. Physical environment affects you, social environment affects you. Everything affects you. That's not shameful or a liability, it's the beauty of live music.
EL: Is songwriting for you a collaborative process or something you do on your own?
CC: Mostly solitary for me. It can be lonely. Like most artists, I go into a reverie and hope to somehow come out of it with something worthwhile. I have a new song called "Fugue State In An Unfamiliar Neighborhood." This is what creativity feels like.
EL: How do you alleviate writer's block?
CC: Listen to the people around you. If you listen the right way, they'll do the writing for you. Many of my favorite Beauty Pill lyrics are just ambient quotes overhead from strangers, recontextualized.
EL: What can we expect at your show?
CC: This show will be a special experiment, augmenting our band with a horn quartet. We are only going to practice one time before the show. There's an aspect of tightrope walk, I guess.
EL: What do you love about D.C.'s music scene? What would you like to change?
CC: I am not nostalgic by nature, but I would love to return to a period when D.C. music felt indigenous. In other words, not Brooklyn, not Chicago, not L.A., but distinctly D.C. One obvious (and maybe unfair) precedent to cite is go-go music. But there's even a long history of wildly eccentric regional rock music that was sui generis. Shudder To Think, The Nation Of Ulysses, Lungfish (who were Baltimore)... these innovative bands were led by brilliant, visionary crazy people. So what happened? Do we not make enough crazy people anymore? People cite technological shifts (people have easier access to broader cultural influences via the internet, which makes art feel consequently blander), economic shifts (D.C.'s now so punishingly pricey that artists can't exist here anymore), or generational shifts (some think millennials are a milder generation, etc.). I don't know what it is, but clearly something is different. And I don't think it's fair or reasonable to expect Dischord [D.C. label] to keep serving up a vanguard in perpetuity. My friend Will Eastman has been a galvanizing figure in the dance music world and he has helped to cultivate that scene here in the last decade. All scenes need passionate people to drive them forward. They deserve our engagement and support and acknowledgement.
EL: How has your sound evolved?
CC: I no longer feel Beauty Pill is a rock band. Or maybe we are, but you have to use quotation marks. "Rock band."
Don't miss Beauty Pill on the Luce Center "stage" next Friday, May 20th at 6 p.m.
E. Carmen Ramos, curator of Latino Art at SAAM was recently in Mexico to research her upcoming exhibition on the acclaimed 20th-century Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo's lengthy residence and production in New York City, Tamayo: The New York Years. This is the fifth in a series of posts Carmen scribed from the road. Stay tuned for more updates. Read all of Carmen's notes from her research trip.
My research assistant, Beth Shook and I went on a major mural hunting binge. We visited many government buildings and saw works by Rufino Tamayo and los Tres Grandes—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. A special highlight was seeing Tamayo's Revolución (1938) at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas. The fresco is painted around the entrance to the building’s former library and features revolutionary figures in armed combat. The scene takes place in an unspecified location with broken columns and an eclipse setting the serious mood. It is one of Tamayo's most monumental early murals and also reveals a strong stylistic and thematic connection to the work of Orozco, whose work we also had the occasion to see another time. We visited the El Colegio de San Ildefonso that houses many murals, including Orozco’s La Trinchera (The Trench) painted from 1924-26. Both Tamayo and Orozco used strong diagonals to lend drama to their scenes, as well as minimal backgrounds to depict an almost allegorical view of the Mexican Revolution.
View works of art by Tamayo in SAAM's collection.
Next (and final) stop: Tamayo's Duality