Luce Unplugged: Five Questions with Snakes
September 5, 2017

Luce Unplugged brings the DMV's best bands to perform in the museum for an evening of music and merriment. We'll kick off our fall lineup with the Baltimore-based band, Snakes on September 7. Snakes is a relatively new act, but they're already attracting attention for their "decadent rockabilly swagger." We sat down with guitarist and vocalist George Cessna for a quick chat about process, creativity, and what's up next for the band.


Snakes performs at the fall kickoff to Luce Unplugged, on September 7.

Eye Level: What music styles/artists did you listen to while growing up and how did that affect how you make music?

George Cessna: I listened to plenty of things growing up; I don't know what affected me the most in how I make music. In high school I listened to a lot of punk music; a lot of the songs were fast and easy to learn. My father is a country singer so I listened to a lot of old country and folk music. But I don't think it was until I left home that I really started looking back to that. There are a number of similarities between punk and country, and funny enough, I think Snakes sits somewhere in between.

EL: Can you describe your creative process for us?

GC: I am a huge procrastinator, to the point where I have to make sure I give myself serious deadlines or I won't get anything done. If we are working on new material I make a point to get a show booked in the near future. That way we have to get the new material worked out in a realistic timeframe. I prefer to stress and stay up all night prior to a deadline, instead of working smart over a long period of time. Strangely, I've found it helps me make better work, so I haven't been able to convince myself to do it any other way.

EL: What other creative outlets, aside from music, do you pursue?

GC: I went to college for film and video, so occasionally I'm working on the visual side of media. Most of the work I do for video is audio production or music composition, so I guess it's still within the same realm.

EL: How did all of you meet and when did you decide to start the band?

GC: I met two of my band members at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) when we were students. The other two I've met along the way, but I can't remember specifically how—either through other music projects or friends we had in common. About three years ago I was doing some solo shows in Baltimore and asked some of them to help me out with the live show. Eventually, it developed into a new band. It was a slow process though; it wasn't until this past year that we really got things moving with the full lineup.

EL: I saw that Snakes finished a tour this summer. What's next for you guys?

GC: We have a new full-length record coming out early next year, and we'll be touring with that.

Grab a drink or a snack from the bar and join us September 7 at 5:30 p.m. for an art talk on a piece in the collection chosen by the band, followed by Snakes' performance at 6. Luce Unplugged is presented with D.C. Music Download.

Posted by Bridget on September 5, 2017 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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In This Case: Artist Paul Rand
August 31, 2017

Paul Rand, a 20th-century graphic designer and art director, was a master at combining elements of fine art and design. His hallmark style combined recognizable symbols, text, and humor to communicate clear messages in creative ways. His iconic logo designs for major firms such as IBM, UPS, NeXT Computer, and ABC transformed the way major companies created brand identity.

SAAM owns a striking example of his work that is now on view at the museum's Luce Foundation Center. In the 1950s, Walter Paepcke, founder of the Container Corporation of America (CCA) and patron of the arts, wanted to bolster awareness of his business and distinguish his manufactured corrugated box company from the competition. His wife, Elizabeth Paepcke, suggested he partner with avant-garde artists "to associate the CCA with design excellence." This idea was forward thinking for its time since most companies featured realistic product images in their ads.

From this came the Great Ideas of Western Man campaign. Artists were chosen to create an ad based on quotes from the classics. The only restriction was the ad could have no copy except for the CCA name and logo.

Paul Rand was asked to participate and was given this quote to work with by the 18th-century British lawyer and politician Thomas Erskine, on the advantages of free speech:

When men can freely communicate their thoughts and their sufferings, real or imaginary, their passions spend themselves in air, like gunpowder scattered upon the surface; but pent up by terrors, they work unseen, burst forth in a moment, and destroy everything in their course.

Rand thought the figure had "haunting eyes." The strategic placement of the quote, laying across the mouth, suggests the individual in Rand's piece is unable to speak. The face's fleeting glance, frantic eyes, and the ripped paper edges of the quote create an underlying sense of anxiety when the freedom to speak freely is absent.

For Paul Rand, the line between fine art and commercial art wasn’t always a clear one. Learn more and explore artworks by Rand in SAAM’s collection.

Posted by Madeline on August 31, 2017 in American Art Here, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Parallax Gap: Building a Drawing
August 22, 2017

Helen B. Bechtel, independent curator and coordinator of the installation, Parallax Gap, fills us in on the relationship between architecture and American craft. Parallax Gap remains on display at the Renwick Gallery through February 11, 2018.

Parallax Gap

Left: cut linework (photo by Helen B. Bechtel). Right: Parallax Gap installed.

"Visual spectacle." "Spatial illusion." "Abstract architecture." FreelandBuck's Parallax Gap, the work of installation architecture currently on view in the Renwick Gallery's Bettie Rubenstein Grand Salon, offers no shortage of intriguing experiences for the visitor. At its core, however, the work is still based on a straightforward exercise: an architectural drawing.

In the field of architecture, drawing has long been used to represent three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional page. Architects David Freeland and Brennan Buck, however, have pushed the role of drawing in their practice, applying the process of drawing beyond just the page or screen and into the fabrication of physical structures. In Parallax Gap, FreelandBuck started with a collection of drawings of nine different architectural ceilings. The linework was printed at large scale on synthetic fabric, and then CNC-cut to isolate the thickness of each line, hatch, and curve. The fabric pieces were then stretched across aluminum frames, arranged in layers, and suspended from the ceiling to create the overall drawing composition. With this process, the architects introduced material heft to their linework, physically crafting a 3,000-square foot drawing. The piece is simultaneously representation and installation, offering a unique and creative example of craft in contemporary architectural practice.

For those who associate the Renwick with exhibiting craft and decorative arts, it may be puzzling to see the museum present a piece of installation architecture. As the Renwick is an institution committed to investigating the art of making, architectural drawing is not a typical exhibition offering nor a notable part of its collection. However, when an architectural practice like FreelandBuck proposes the provocative idea of actually building a drawing, an installation based on an architectural drawing becomes a piece newly relevant to the museum. Parallax Gap marries the art of making with the act of drawing, representing a new artistic medium and a significant example of the Renwick's expanded definition of contemporary craft.

Interested in learning more about Parallax Gap? Join me this Friday, August 25, at 12 p.m. in the Renwick's Bettie Rubenstein Grand Salon, as I discuss the artwork's fabrication and installation with Abraham Thomas, the Renwick's Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge.

Posted by Howard on August 22, 2017 in American Art Here, American Craft
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Luce Unplugged: Aaron Abernathy
August 18, 2017

Luce Unplugged brings DC's best musical acts to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for an evening concert after a staff-led art talk. On Thursday, August 24, soul artist Aaron Abernathy takes a break from working on his current projects to perform a set at 6 p.m. Luce Unplugged is presented in collaboration with DC Music Download.

Aaron Abernathy

Aaron Abernathy

"My albums are books," Aaron Abernathy said in an interview last year on Bandcamp, comparing the experience of listening to his music to learning from a book you've pulled from your shelf. And Abernathy certainly has plenty to share with his listeners. His most recent record, Monologue (2016), reflects on his relationships with his family, friends, and high school girlfriend, something we can all relate to, even if we never put it to music. An earlier single from last year, "Now A Days," is especially poignant as it explores what it means to be Black in America today. The song also features the words of his great uncle, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a leader the Civil Rights movement and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Abernathy is from Cleveland, Ohio, where he took his first piano lessons as a child. He moved to Washington, DC to attend Howard University. Here he made his first foray into our local music scene and he credits the support of fellow artists in the DC community with his decision to live here. The singer/songwriter/producer includes Sly and the Family Stone, Prince, and Earth, Wind, and Fire among his many influences and fosters his creativity through everything from conversations, movies, and music. Abernathy has toured across the globe, recently returning from a sold out show in Tokyo, and we're so excited to welcome him to the Luce Center. Please join us at 5:30 p.m. for a talk on Edward Mitchell Bannister's Sunset Scene, a painting selected by Abernathy, before he performs at 6 p.m. If you can't wait until Thursday, you can take a listen to his music on his website.

Posted by Bridget on August 18, 2017 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Peter Voulkos: Breaking with Tradition
August 15, 2017


Red Through Black #3, 1959, vinyl paint, sand and clay on canvas. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Manuel Neri, 1996.167.1

On view in our current exhibition at the Renwick Gallery, Peter Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years, are three of the artist's large-scale paintings: Blue Remington, Red Through Black #3, and Falling Red. Some people may be surprised to find paintings in Voulkos' oeuvre, but that's what makes their discovery (at least for me) all the more exciting. Though renowned as the most important ceramic artist of the last century, Voulkos trained as a painter. From 1953 to 1968, his radical ideas and methods transformed his field. His disruptive techniques and monumental works forever changed the nature of ceramic making. These years of critical invention are celebrated in the Renwick's exhibition that closes this Sunday, August 20.

What captured my eye is the artist's relationship between his paintings and ceramics. Voulkos is often quoted as saying, "Painting helps the sculpture, sculpture helps the painting, pottery helps both." In the 1950s Volkous spent time at the influential Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, before a one-month stint in Manhattan with fellow potter M.C. Richards. In these heady, post World War II years, he visited the Cedar Tavern, an artists' mecca in Greenwich Village, where he met painters Jack Tworkov, Franz Kline, and Philip Guston, whose works influenced his own. Additional influences include Picasso, Matisse, Cubism, and Japanese ceramics. His ceramics became three-dimensional works of abstract expressionism, and his paintings have the gestures of action painting and the DNA of ceramics. Red Through Black #3 is made of vinyl paint, sand and clay on canvas, while Falling Red is comprised of lacquer and sand on canvas. Does that make them paintings or sculptures or both?

And though I haven't heard of any connection, Falling Red reminded me of James McNeill Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Perhaps it was the word "falling" that brought me to Whistler's ethereal work from 1875 as well as the downward gestures and verticality of the use of paint. This is the painting that caused critic John Ruskin to accuse Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face," and led to one of the most famous libel cases in the art world. But that's another blog post (probably for another museum). I just imagine Voulkos applying sand and clay to his canvas with his determined gestures and confidence as if to say to any critic who may doubt his methods, "Don't you even dare."

Peter Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years is on view at the Renwick Gallery until this Sunday, August 20.

Posted by Howard on August 15, 2017 in American Art Here, American Craft
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