Luce Unplugged: 5 Questions with Fellow Creatures
July 30, 2015
Our last Luce Unplugged of the summer arrives next Thursday, August 6th at 6 p.m. Our featured band will be Fellow Creatures and will be co-sponsored with local music site D.C. Music Download. The show will be the second Luce Unplugged performance for the band's frontman Sam McCormally, formerly of Ugly Purple Sweater, and he took time talk about what has and hasn't changed for him since his last show here.
Eye Level: Luce Unplugged regulars know each show's "opening act" is an art talk by staff on a work chosen by the band. Sam, when you played here before, you went above and beyond by writing a song about the SAAM artwork you picked, and I hear you're doing the same for this show. What can you tell us about it?
Sam McCormally: The song is inspired by The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly. The artwork is a shrine of sorts Hampton created in a rented garage out of aluminum and gold foil and a bunch of other stuff. The song is still coming together, but ultimately I think it's about the ecstatic possibilities of artistic creation.
EL: Sonically or otherwise, what did you bring with you from Ugly Purple Sweater to Fellow Creatures and what did you leave behind? How do you balance innovation with foundation?
SM: When my last band Ugly Purple Sweater ended, it seemed like an opportunity to try to head off in a new direction. And we changed a lot; I set down my acoustic guitar for a variety of keyboards and gizmos. Most importantly, in Fellow Creatures, songwriting and singing duties are shared with fastidious equality between myself and Will McKindley-Ward. But recently Will and I have been reflecting that perhaps we didn't change as much as we thought we would; I think there's a core of my songwriting and performing style that operates on intuition and that I don't really seem to have a ton of say over. It just is what it is.
EL: What can we expect from the new album? Have you prioritized recording or doing shows?
SM: The new album is completely tracked, which is very, very exciting. We enlisted the help of fellow DC musician and producer Louis Weeks (a former Luce Unplugged performer), who contributed various percussion and textures to the album and encouraged us to do the same. I think the most concrete thing I can say about the album is that it is a really carefully constructed thing; we played a lot with layer vocals and unusual guitar sounds. This year, we tried to do a lot of everything we did a couple of short tours this summer in between finishing up the album. Some people might point out that this is an inefficient way of working, and I agree.
EL: "Indie rock" has become a catchall that doesn't seem to capture the nuance of Fellow Creatures' unique sound. How would you describe the band?
SM: Well, yes, indie rock seems like a tricky term, doesn't it? What bands lumped together under the indie banner have in common seems to be about a certain musical sensibility. I think, we more or less, embody the omnivorous zeitgeist: we're a rock and roll band that traffics in electronic music, like a lot of bands these days. And we also dip into the choral thing that seems to be in vogue. As far as influences, the people who we end up talking about at rehearsal include St. Vincent, Grizzly Bear, Tom Waits, and TV on the Radio.
EL: I'm a big fan of your art direction and especially love the pearler bead portraits by Jocelyn Mackenzie. Tell me more about your visual presence and how it relates to Fellow Creatures' sound and mission.
SM: Jocelyn Mackenzie is in the band Pearl and the Beard, whose last show is in November. Jocelyn has been a musician friend of mine for many years and she told me she was starting to do art direction and design for bands and other organizations. She's a graphic designer/fashion stylist/creative weirdo par excellence, and we asked her to help us do some visual art for the band. One of the things she did was create pearler bead portraits of Will and I. And if it's not too silly, I think I'd argue they represent our band kinda perfectly: they are recognizable as faces, and also are reminiscent of childhood arts and crafts. But the color palette is unusual, and looking at them up close, it's not 100% clear why it is they register as faces: they're really pretty abstract looking.
Catch Sam and Fellow Creatures play in the Luce Foundation Center next Thursday, August 6th at 6 p.m. following a staff-led art talk on a work selected by the band.
Watch This: Ghosts of New York
July 28, 2015
The ghosts, the commuters, the visitors, the stories...they all pass across the screen in Jim Campbell's Grand Central Station #2, a poetic meditation on movement and memory. On view in the exhibition, Watch This: Revelations in Media Art, Campbell's LED-based work features shadows that move across the floor of New York's Grand Central Station. Each dark shadow has the consistency of smoke: we never see the people, only their ghostly presence.
How many people cross the marble floors of Grand Central each day, and where are they going? Work, home, or someplace they've never been before? It's a majestic space, saved from demolition in the seventies, with painted constellations on its vaulted ceiling. And there, in the middle of a rush hour, you can always look up and see stars.
With Campbell, the action is at ground level. A discarded paper remains on the floor while countless people walk by. Poetry is not always in the stars; sometimes, as in Campbell's work, you have to look down to find it.
Karen Lemmey, SAAM's sculpture curator, has organized an installation entitled Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers' Greek Slave. Powers' Greek Slave was one of the most popular sculptures of the 19th century. As part of her preparation, Karen worked with Smithsonian X 3D, part of the Institution's Digitization program, to create a 3D model of the this sculpture. Karen continues to explain the process. You may also read her first post on creating a 3D model of the sculpture, as well as a piece about conserving the Greek Slave.
Sculptors have long made body casts of limbs and torsos to serve as anatomical study models. Many sculptors were also hired to make death mask impressions of the faces of deceased loved ones and public luminaries. But in the nineteenth century, the boundary between modeling in clay and body casting was strictly observed, and sculptors risked their reputations and credibility if they were suspected of "cheating" by substituting a body cast instead of modeling the figure themselves. Remarkably, despite this risk, several objects in the exhibition Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers' Greek Slave demonstrate how the sculptor may have incorporated body casts into his finished works.
Perhaps most scandalous is a plaster body cast of a woman's forearm and hand that eerily captures the unmistakable skin texture and muscle tone of a living model. Until now, this object had been catalogued as Cast of the Forearm and Left Hand of "Greek Slave" (thumb and two fingers missing), a misleading title suggesting this cast was made from the sculpture of the Greek Slave, rather than from a living person. Research for this exhibition gives us the opportunity to more accurately present this object. This fragmentary plaster cast is the exact size and holds the same pose as the left arm and hand of the Greek Slave, inviting us to wonder who may have served as the artist's model for this famed sculpture and to what extent Powers relied on studies from life to create his idealized figures. In an attempt to quantify the differences between the Greek Slave and this body cast, SAAM teamed up with Smithsonian X 3D, the Smithsonian Digitization Program, to conduct deviation analysis on digital scans of both objects. The results are still under investigation but come see the exhibition and compare the two objects for yourself!
Powers also relied on body casting in other instances. Early in 1839, he cast the hands and forearms of his sleeping six-month-old daughter, Louisa. He then made molds from which he generated additional casts, one of which he trimmed with a strip of real fabric to suggest the cuff of the baby's sleeve, and displayed on a pillow: Louisa Powers' Hand. In time, Powers mounted a cast of the baby's left hand in the center of a sunflower bloom, creating Loulie's Hand (Luly's Hand). Although the artist made this work as a family keepsake, Loulie's Hand attracted such admiration that Powers authorized many replicas in marble and plaster. In 1851, he revisited the sunflower motif and created a similar work using a cast of the right hand of an older child. In both Loulie's Hand and Child's Hand, Powers took a shortcut in production: rather than sculpting the hands in clay, he used these body casts as pointing models, adding pins and pencil marks to guide their direct translation into marble. These incredibly lifelike casts capture the folds of the flesh, fingernails, and skin texture in detail that can never be fully replicated in marble.
Since the nineteenth century, life casting has become an accepted studio practice that is widely used by many contemporary artists, suggesting that Powers was a sculptor ahead of his time.
Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers' Greek Slave is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in collaboration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Our Next Handi-Hour: Paint Pen Mugs
July 20, 2015
SAAM's Handi-hour is back on Thursday, July 23rd in the Luce Foundation Center for another fun evening of craft-making! Check out the video below with program coordinators Katie Crooks and Gloria Kenyon for a preview of this month's craft.
Join us in the Luce Center from 5:30 to 8 p.m. in the Smithsonian American Art Museum to design your own mug while enjoying selected craft beers. You can also sample teas and create your own tea blends with local restaurant and teahouse, Teaism, and while enjoying live music by Practically Einstein. Admission is $20 at the door and you must be 21 or older to enter.
Close Encounters with Nam June Paik
July 16, 2015
Russell Connor was an abstract painter, happily minding his own business, when in Boston in 1969, he met media visionary, Nam June Paik. As Connor told us the other night at a program in honor of Paik's birthday (he was born on July 20, 1932 in Seoul, Korea) at SAAM's McEvoy Auditorium, that meeting changed Connor's life (Connor called it "mind-stirring and life-changing"). It also changed his art. Connor called his talk a "before and after story." Life before Paik, was rather ho-hum for Connor, who, in his words, had "lost or misplaced his artistic compass." He was an abstract painter, but didn't feel his work was where it should be. After his encounters and collaborations with Paik, Connor's compass was pointing towards a new artistic vision.
Connor referred to Paik as his "savior," who took him "from the wilderness to the wilderness." At the start of the evening, we were treated to a few clips of experimental videos created by Paik and narrated by Connor in his distinguished deep voice, included Global Groove from 1973. "This is a glimpse of a video landscape of tomorrow," Connor began, "When you will be able to switch to any TV station on the earth, and TV Guides will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book." Another video, The Selling of New York, showed Connor with musician Charlotte Moorman who famously played the cello while wearing the TV-bra that Paik designed for her.
In 1970, Connor organized the first exhibition of video art at the Rose Art Gallery at Brandeis University, solidifying his importance to the emerging medium. From that point on, he began to collaborate on films for television not only with Paik, but with William Wegman and Bill Viola, among others. From there, he came director of education at the Whitney Museum of Art.
In terms of his own work, Connor began to employ an effect he learned from television and video art called Chroma Key (now known as Green Screen). Here, backgrounds can be replaced and new possibilities added. He was really creating what today we'd call mash-ups, with people from different paintings somehow meeting in Connor's work. In one painting he titled Love and Death, for example, two of Manet's most famous subjects meet: the Dead Toreador turns up under the bed of Olympia. In these and other works, Connor had found his artistic compass.
At the end of his talk, Connor shared a piece of advice for young artists: "Do what only you can do. Nam June Paik figured that out as a very young man. It took me a little longer. I like to think we helped each other on that long and winding road."
After the talk, the crowd was treated to birthday cake and drinks in honor of Paik's birthday.