Like all good things, WONDER, the most talked-about, Instagrammed, and wondrous exhibition is nearing the end of its record-breaking run. Sunday, May 8, is your last chance to see four installations on the second floor—Maya Lin's Folding the Chesapeake, Jennifer Angus' In the Midnight Garden, John Grade's Middle Fork, and Chakaia Booker's Anonymous Donor. The silver lining is that Janet Echelman's 1.8 in the Grand Salon will remain on view through 2017.
The gold lining is that two of the pieces in WONDER have been acquired by the museum: Maya Lin's Folding the Chesapeake and Leo Villareal's light installation Volume. Prominently displayed over the Grand Staircase, Volume will remain on permanent view. You will always be able to look up and be dazzled by the never-repeating sequence of lights. Wonder indeed!
Beginning July 1, more than eighty objects from the Renwick's permanent collection will go on view in the second floor galleries in the exhibition Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery.
Luce Artist Talk: Five (plus one) Questions with Brian Davis
April 28, 2016
Multimedia artist and sculptor Brian Davis rounds out this spring's Luce Artist Talks series on Saturday, May 7 at 1:30 p.m. The Luce Artist Talks series brings in local artists to discuss their current projects in relation to the objects on view in our Luce Foundation Center. Davis will speak about his most recent project, Try and Try Again, which combines projected images, ping pong balls, and visitor participation. This series is presented in collaboration with CulturalDC's Flashpoint Gallery.
Eye Level: Can you talk a little bit more about how skateboarding and skate culture influenced your decision to become an artist?
Brian Davis: My friends and I were always making and fixing things. We built ramps, clubhouses, and took apart our bikes and skateboards on rainy days. I think this, and the fact that both of my parents were makers (my mother sewed and crafted, and my father was an airplane mechanic and had a garage full of tools) led me to my work where I repurpose things, tinker, and build.
EL: Which American artists (living or dead) have the biggest influence on your most recent work?
BD: A couple of professors in graduate school had a lasting impact on my thinking. Sergio Vega and Will Pappenheimer at the University of Florida were very influential. And ever since I built a modified replica of a Bruce Nauman's A Cast of the Space Under My Chair (one which Rachael Whiteread also riffed on) I have counted them as my favorites.
EL: You wrote, "Connecting two or more unrelated entities allows for a tension between what is expected and what can transpire." Do you remember a time when the outcome was so vastly different from what you expected?
BD: I'm always surprised by the variety of reactions an installation can produce. In 2005, I installed Pedestal in an outdoor wooded area by Winthrop University. Pedestal was an illuminated disco dance floor where the light-run patterns where activated by the ambient sounds around the space. One night while teaching ceramics class, I look up and see someone breakdancing on the floor with no one else around. I thought viewers would focus on how the sculpture interacted with the world around it, but in actuality they used it for their own performances.
EL: You mentioned Try and Try Again is an experiment. How do you know if one of your many ideas is worth pursuing?
BD: I think this is the most stressful part of art making. But when I find myself visiting and revisiting an idea, I know it's something I have to pursue.
EL: You've worked across a lot of mediums already. What is something you haven't tried yet, but might like to?
BD: I'm interested in performance art —the way it is ephemeral but can have a lasting impact. I'm especially drawn to Roman Signer's work. It's something that I've been thinking about incorporating more into my own work.
EL: SAAM was one of the first art museums to acquire video games, and our exhibition The Art of Video Games, recently finished a 3½ year-tour around the country. Video games and other media arts are something that clearly interest you. Can you talk a little bit about video games as art?
BD: I grew up during the rise of video games where my earliest digital experience was playing a Commodore 64. I leveraged my nostalgia for that time to create UNMAN-A. I used a restored Atari arcade cabinet to house a video game I developed. In this video game/artwork, the viewer plays as Bruce Nauman in 4 of his iconic video works and periodically the viewer would be abducted to fight space invaders. Losing yourself in a process (like one can imagine Nauman losing himself in the making of a durational video like slow angle walk) struck me as incredibly similar to playing a video game where the process of playing is the most important.
When playing video games, I often wonder, how can I use this space? I say the same thing when making an installation.
Please join us on Saturday, May 7 at 1:30 p.m. for Brian's talk. Afterward, guests are invited to head across the street to Flashpoint Gallery to experience Try and Try Again for themselves.
Curator's Travel Journal: In Rufino Tamayo's Footsteps (4)
April 26, 2016
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 fourth 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.
Oaxaca, Tamayo's birthplace, is breathtakingly beautiful. Nestled in a valley at the foot of the Sierra Madre mountains, the historic part of the town is filled with cobblestone streets and turn-of-the-century homes with wrought iron gates referenced in many Tamayo paintings of the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1970s, Tamayo gave his pre-Columbian collection to the State of Oaxaca. He began collecting pre-Columbian art in the 1950s and by the 1970s had amassed around 800 works, mostly sculptures, representing many indigenous cultures throughout Mexico. The museum he would found, the Museo de Arte Prehispanico Rufino Tamayo, emphasizes pre-Columbian objects as art and not anthropological specimens. Tamayo had a say on the installation of the museum. He did not want his collection presented in a "white cube" but sought to infuse the galleries with intense color. The galleries have remained unchanged since the 1970s and are a delight to see and experience.
View works of art by Tamayo in SAAM's collection.
Next stop: Mexican Murals
Luce Unplugged: 5 Questions with Humble Fire
April 21, 2016
Next Thursday, join us for another night of music and art at Luce Unplugged with Humble Fire on April 28th at 5:30 p.m. in the Luce Foundation Center. Humble Fire's jangly and dreamy tunes have made the four-piece art rock group one of the most sought-out bands in the D.C. area, and we can't wait to hear them perform side-by-side with the 3,000 plus artworks in Luce. As always, the show, presented with our friends D.C. Music Download, will be free. Visitors 21 and older will be able to purchase drinks from a cash bar. Come at 5:30 to hear Humble Fire talk about an artwork they selected from SAAM's collection; or show up at 6 to catch their set. In anticipation of the show, we talked to Humble Fire about their recording process and the evolution of their sound.
Eye Level: How does where you’re recording affect the feel of the music?
Dave Epley (guitar): Over the past year we've been recording with Chris Freeland (who recorded legends such as Wye Oak and Lower Dens, as well as D.C. locals ROM and Fellow Creatures) at his studio outside Baltimore. It's been a great experience for us. Chris is a great engineer and having him behind the controls and wearing the producer hat at times has helped us craft a record we're really proud of.
Xaq Rothman (bass): We might even release it some time.
EL: What do you do with the music you don’t release?
DE: It lives in a Dropbox folder called "Unfinished Bizness" where we can enjoy it for eternity.
EL: Is songwriting for you a collaborative process or something you do on your own?
XR: Humble Fire was founded on the principle that a band is greater than the sum of its members, and we live that out through an intensely collaborative process. Darlings are slain in numbers that would give Obi-Wan Kenobi a migraine.
EL: I love your new band photo. Who took it and what’s the story behind it?
DE: This was a DIY job with the help of (our drummer) Jason's awesome partner Celeste. At the time we didn’t yet have a good photo of the band that included Jason, who joined last summer.
XR: What you don’t see in that photo is the couch in Jason and Celeste’s apartment that we nearly broke by standing on. Also it was really hard not to squint with that projector pointing at us.
EL: How has your sound evolved?
XR: Our most recent songwriting has been really focused on creating a sense of development while remaining within a fairly basic pop form. We’re working on creating a seamless whole from the interaction between our voices as opposed to their aggregation. Also, just less Big Muff.
DE: In the last year or so we've really found our sound. I think we found it through a combination of being in the studio, working with great producers like Louis Weeks and Chris Freeland, and continuing to learn how to work together better.
WONDER Artist Interview: Jennifer Angus
April 20, 2016
Artist Jennifer Angus uses brilliantly colored insects in her thought-provoking installation, In the Midnight Garden, on view through May 8 in the exhibition WONDER. Eye Level had a chance to catch up with Jennifer and ask her about her work, the importance of insects to the natural world, and even to take a peek into her closet.
Eye Level: How do you define Wonder, and has it changed since you installed your work at the Renwick?
Jennifer Angus: I notice that Wonder has a capital so I guess you're asking about the exhibition but even with a small "w" I think the answer is the same. To me wonder is that "wow" moment that catches you unexpectedly. Wonder is something greater than surprise because hours, days, weeks and months later you recall it and it still continues to inspire and amaze.
I can't speak for the other artists in the show but wonder has always been central to my work. If people walk into the gallery and say, "Wow! I've never seen anything like this before" then I feel a sense of accomplishment. I think this feeling is relatively rare nowadays. We are inundated with information constantly and we know so much more compared to earlier generations that in many ways we're a bit jaded. It's hard to amaze people any more.
EL: What first came to your mind when you saw the empty galleries?
JA: When I walked into the space I had a feeling of faded grandeur. It's a beautiful building but layers of paint and faux finishes were masking its true beauty.
EL: What were the challenges/rewards of filling/occupying the space?
JA: Initially, I was asked to create a proposal for the octagon room which is currently housing the 3D-printed model of The Greek Slave. This space presented a lot of challenges because it has 3 doors, a window, wainscoting and the width of each wall was just 10 feet. I was also aware that the Chihuly chandelier would be hung from the ceiling so there were so many competing elements!
Eventually, I ended up in the space I'm in, Gallery 206. Apparently this is the smallest gallery but it worked well for me. There are no windows and the high ceiling allowed me to create a space in which the viewer really feels engulfed and surrounded by both the magenta color and the insects. It's the only gallery in this show in which the walls are anything other than the standard grey so it's very memorable for that reason alone.
When I was installing, the high ceilings meant that my assistants and I spent a lot of time on the genie lifts —up and down, up and down. We're used to spending time on ladders but we'd never been this high up. After awhile we forgot that we were in a little cage suspended 15 feet in the air. I enjoyed the view from up there and the installation looks quite different. I wish everyone could see that view.
EL: You've taken the natural world indoors. Can you talk about the process?
JA: My work has gradually been moving towards stronger ecological concepts. The title of my installation at the Renwick Gallery, In the Midnight Garden, in fact refers to the symbolic Doomsday Clock. The "Clock" is an indicator of man's proximity to global disaster whether it be in the form of environmental catastrophe or outright war. Currently the Clock is set at three minutes before midnight. My use of pattern at the Renwick was strategically employed to imply man's desire to control nature, but the pattern breaks imply the futility of this effort. Skulls composed of hundreds of weevils and small beetles are the pattern's central motif. Throughout history, the skull image has been a universal symbol of man's mortality. My use of this potent icon was intended to suggest man's fragility or ephemeral state on this planet. We need insects to survive. They pollinate flowers that, in turn, produce fruit. The world is starting to wake up to the devastating tragedy that awaits us all if colony collapse, the death of millions and millions of honeybees, goes on unabated. The role of insects in decomposing matter is not to be underestimated either. Our world would become a massive rubbish heap without insects, and the human race would no longer exist.
I colored the walls with a dye produced from a little known insect called cochineal. Cochineal was initially one of the most important dyes in the world, generating colors that range from orange to deep red to purple. It is a type of scale insect (as are lice) found in Latin America. Red has always been one of the most difficult colors to achieve with natural dyestuffs, and so it was highly prized. Since the advent of chemical dyes, cochineal is infrequently used to dye cloth (except by natural dye enthusiasts).
I always study the gallery floor plan carefully. I have a picture of each insect to scale on my computer and in Photoshop work out my design. This is important for practical reasons because I need to know how many insects to bring to the site. The planning of an exhibition can take quite a long time as I run through the possibilities. The physical installation typically takes a week to ten days depending on the scale, complexity and how much help I have.
EL: What's next, and has it been shaped by your WONDER experience?
JA: The exhibition at the Renwick and my use of cochineal in some ways brought me back to my textile roots. It is in this direction that I see myself moving forward in my research and studio work. At the University of Wisconsin I teach textile design, specifically in the area of dyeing and printing. Each year I instruct students on using cochineal, but my own passion in the field has primarily focused on technical and conceptual aspects of repeating pattern. My use of this ancient dye for an important project has sparked my interest in what some might remark was staring me in the face all along —another insect product— silk, the fiber produced by the larvae of Bombyx mori, the silk moth.
In the summer of 2014, while visiting cochineal dyers in Mexico, I also journeyed to two remote villages in the mountains of Oaxaca where people are engaged in silk production from an indigenous moth species. Artisans complained that the local silkworm did not produce nearly as much silk thread as an Asian variety the Mexican government has at times distributed to local farmers. Instantly I wanted to investigate. However it occurred to me that despite my interest in insects and textiles and also years spent earlier in my career in Thailand, I have never invested in the obvious, silk.
While I anticipate continuing to create installations with insects which explore issues related to pattern and the environment, I would like to make further connections to textile traditions through the use of cochineal, silk cocoons and silk fabric in my projects. Part of the investigation would include traveling to India, China and Thailand. This would give me the opportunity to research the production of silk which includes the care and cultivation of silk worms/cocoons, the reeling of silk thread, dyeing, weaving and print techniques in regions known for their mastery of textiles and silk in particular. Reflection upon primary research will provide new inspiration to develop and produce thought provoking exhibitions which explore man's relationship with nature.
EL: People are still talking about the exhibition-themed dress you wore to the opening. Can you talk a little about it, and of course, share a photo!
JA: Haha! Everyone knows that I teach textile design so there was no way I could show up to the opening without wearing a dress, the fabric of which I had designed myself. Since there were two VIP dinners I made two dresses. First, I hand painted the silk fabric with dye and then screen printed a design I had created earlier for a wallpaper project actually. That's partially why the motifs were so large but I felt it worked. It's funny, I print fabric all the time, mostly as demos in class. I have piles of fabric but I don't make anything from it very often. This was a fun project for me and it showed my students that their professor can actually finish something!
Watch a video of conversation between Jennifer Angus and Smithsonian entomologist, Seán Brady. In the Midnight Garden closes on May 8. If you haven't seen it yet, hurry. The clock is ticking! Learn more about the schedule for installations closing in WONDER.