In This Case: Art’s Role Regarding the Sacred
August 10, 2017

In This Case is a series of ongoing posts on art in the Luce Foundation Center, a visible art storage facility at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that displays more than 3,000 pieces in sixty-four secure glass cases. This piece was written by Luce Center volunteer, Laurna Strikwerda.

Santa Barbara, Artist Unidentified

If you have ever visited a centuries-old Roman church or an Islamic mosque, you may have glimpsed the role visual arts play in the beliefs, practices and narratives concerning the sacred. In the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Luce Foundation Center, three pieces of art provide a snapshot of the different ways art has connected individuals and community to spirituality: a concrete object for protection; a narrative about hope; and a symbolic representation of prayer.

In case 21B, there is a small statue titled Santa Barbara from 18th-century Puerto Rico. Catholics pray to her to ask for protection against lightning storms, hurricanes, and sudden death. This connection derives from an account passed down that her father—who killed her after she refused to renounce her newfound Christianity—was struck by lightning as retribution. This narrative hints at how she became popular in Puerto Rico. The patron saint for lightning expanded to become the patron saint for violent storms and hurricanes as well. The small sacred image, or santo, (Spanish for "saint") had a protective function and was integrated into the daily lives of those who used it. Art conservators' research (PDF) has shown that santos were repainted multiple times, which was part of the devotion rituals associated with these objects.

Centuries later, American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner also used narrative to evoke the sacred. He frequently painted images of Biblical stories that focus on themes such as justice, trust, and hope. The son of a minister and a mother who had escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad, Tanner began painting at age eleven. By twenty, he had entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as the only African American among 200 students. Tanner's piece Moses in the Bullrushes depicts one moment in the story of Moses, a member of the Israelites, who was enslaved in Egypt. The Egyptian Pharaoh feared the Israelites' were becoming too numerous and ordered all Israelite baby boys to be killed. Moses' mother and aunt hid the baby on the Nile River bank to save him. Eventually, he grew up and led the Israelites out of Egypt into freedom. In the painting, the baby Moses is escaping a violent fate, but Tanner's soft colors, still figures, and gentle brushstrokes create a sense of calm, while the moonlight reflected in the water may symbolize God's presence. Tanner's depiction of a moment of trust in an otherwise violent story reminds its viewers not to lose sight of hope.

In addition to the narrative, symbolism can be used to connect spirituality to everyday objects. Richard de Menocal's painting, Calligraphy with Box and Glasses, uses a full glass of water on the right and an empty one on the left, moving the viewer's eye from right to left, with the Arabic phrase, which is also read right to left. The phrase, the Basmala in his painting, means "in the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful." It is frequently used by Muslims at the beginning of a speech or major text. De Menocal may be evoking this idea of offering with the full glass at the beginning of the phrase and an empty one at the end, symbolizing an individual emptying, or offering, himself to God.

Posted by Madeline on August 10, 2017 in American Art Research, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Picture This: SAAM Arcade 2017
August 8, 2017

Indie Developers

Indie developers held court in SAAM's Kogod Courtyard. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

This past weekend, SAAM celebrated all that is good about video games when it hosted its annual SAAM Arcade. Almost 20,000 attended the two-day event held in the museum's Kogod Courtyard and throughout the museum. This is the third year SAAM has held this event as part of an ongoing initiative to showcase video games as an important part of our visual culture as well as study at the museum.

More than 40 student and professional developers participated in our "Indie Showcase" and visitors got to play classic games such as pinball, "Centipede," "Asteroids," "Pac-Man," and "Donkey Kong." Game-building and coding workshops were conducted by Boolean Girl and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Meanwhile, in the museum's McEvoy Auditorium, musical groups Bit Brigade and Triforce Quartet performed songs inspired by classic video games. Here are some photos from the event:

Dance Dance Revolution

The Great Hall and SAAM's Luce Center were arcade game central with pinball machines, and games like "Street Fighter" and "Dr. Mario." Two visitors try out "Dance Dance Revolution." Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

Boys and Girls Youth Esports League Championship

The Boys and Girls Club Youth Esports League Championship with NRG's Nairo. NRG is one of electronic sports' most successful teams. Last year, top Super Smash Bros. for Wii U player Nairoby "Nairo" Quezada joined the team. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

A young player experiences the non-stop trip as a shapeshifting bird in a voxel three-dimensional world of the Norwegian game, Fugl. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) Foundation supported SAAM Arcade. Arcade cabinets, pinball machines, and consoles were provided by MAGFest, Death by Audio Arcade, Arcades4Home, and CrabTowne USA. The Washington City Paper was the official media sponsor for this program.

Posted by Jeff on August 8, 2017 in Museums & Technology, Picture This
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A Sense of Place: New Mexico as Seen by Artist Gene Kloss
August 3, 2017

Gene Kloss felt that immersion in nature was essential to the production of art. Her paintings and etchings were directly informed by nature and she couldn't conceive of making art any other way. "An artist must keep in close contact with nature... in order to produce a significant body of work," she said, and she was prepared to live by her words. Taos, New Mexico had no electricity or running water when she first visited the town on a honeymoon camping trip in 1925, and yet, she chose to make it her home. She and her husband, Phillips, built an adobe house where they lived by the light of kerosene lamps and used water carried from a nearby stream.

For more than a century, artists have traveled from across the United States to live and work in New Mexico. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of amenities, artists found a source of inspiration in the desert that was worth forgoing modern conveniences. The dramatic landscape of the southern reaches of the Rocky Mountains and their distance from the bustle of industry captured the imaginations of artists who felt confined by life in major American cities. Georgia O'Keeffe is perhaps the best known of these artists, but there were many who traveled to the southwest to live a life that was inaccessible anywhere else. Our open storage Luce Foundation Center cases 32B and 33A display the work of artists who made their home in New Mexico, often in Taos, in order to enjoy and document the beauty of the landscape.

Gene Kloss painted what she saw. While others used the mesas and mountains of New Mexico to bridge the transition between figurative and abstract imagery, Kloss remained steadfast in her devotion to realism. Artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley stretched and molded natural forms to express their individual points of view. Kloss, however, considered abstraction a fad. In her own words, abstraction lacked the "conscious development in the language of art to express the significance of a subject that gives a 'fullness' to art."

Kloss developed a style of etching she called "painting" that allowed acid to bite deeply into the copper plate and create the large areas of darkness, which she used for night scenes. She dug into plates again and again with a dental implement shaped like a small spatula in order to achieve soft variations in light.

Midwinter in the Sangre de Cristos, the work on view in case 33A, is an oil painting, but her distinctive use of light and shadow is evident in any medium. Subtle variations in the gray of the sky give the impression of an oncoming storm. A common theme for Kloss was the insignificance of human creations when compared with the overwhelming scale of nature. The grandeur of the mountains turns the little house at their base into a toy. For Kloss, it was nature, not human enterprise that gave art its true purpose.

Posted by Anne on August 3, 2017 in American Art Here, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Not in the Fast Lane: Anthony Hernandez's Photographs
July 26, 2017

SAAM's current photography exhibition Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography, explores the post-World War II changes taking place in cities across the country through the eyes of ten photographers who documented these transformations. Alex Santana, SAAM's 2015 Latino Museum Studies Fellow and current Manager of Public Engagement at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey gives us some insight into the work of one of these artists, Anthony Hernandez.

Anthony Hernandez

Anthony Hernandez's Public Transit Areas, Termino Ave. and Pacific Coast Highway, Looking North, from the Long Beach Documentary Survey Project

Many Chicano artists during the 1970s and 1980s created work that responded to the overbearing presence of the freeway system in Los Angeles. These winding series of roadways, often adjacent to or directly above low-income barrios of LA, are present in the murals and paintings of Judy Baca, Frank Romero, and Carlos Almaraz, all who came of age when freeway construction transformed the Los Angeles landscape. In more subtle ways, the freeway is also present in the compelling photography of Anthony Hernandez.

Born in 1947, Anthony Hernandez grew up in Aliso Village, a sprawling public housing project east of downtown Los Angeles. Hernandez's career took off in the 1970s when he began to document people traversing the streets of Los Angeles. From the outset, his photography reflected the changing dynamics of the urban environment and its residents.

The statewide modernization projects of California, beginning in the early 1900s, peaking in the 1950s, and continuing until this day, prioritized automotive mobility in LA through the expansion of its freeway system. Los Angeles became a model for the modern, decentralized city, favoring suburban home ownership and automotive mobility while marginalizing those in urban, low-income areas reliant on public transportation. In fact, historian Eric Avila has noted that the construction of many of Los Angeles roadways depended on the destruction of low-income neighborhoods that were targeted as the ideal locations for urban freeways. This history is powerfully visualized in one panel in Judy Baca's epic mural, The Great Wall of Los Angeles, where she depicts the freeway as a serpent that menacingly coils around bodies and separates families. In a very literal way, the city became divided by its freeway system, as certain communities were prioritized over others.

Between 1976 and 1981, the National Endowment for the Arts commissioned artists across the country to document contemporary America—its cities, towns, and people. Hernandez participated in the project with his series Public Transit Areas (Long Beach Documentary Survey Project), 1979-1980 that documented life in Long Beach, California, located just south of Los Angeles. Hernandez captures urban scenes where passengers wait at bus stops. In each photograph of the series, the landscape is vertically divided into two planes. On the left side is the expanse of road, extending from the foreground until the vanishing point in the middle of the frame. The focal point of each photograph highlights the public transit passengers who seem to be waiting for a bus that will never come. Their expressions communicate a frustrated boredom, and their bodily postures feel tired and motionless. In Termino Ave. and Pacific Coast Highway, the passengers dispassionately meet the photographer's gaze while waiting, and their positions feel especially static when juxtaposed with the roadway. Moving too fast for even the camera to capture, cars zoom by on the left side of the landscape, appearing as blurred figures.

Although Hernandez's photographs do not depict the freeway system's identifiable spiral formations, the symbolism of the roadway is still overbearingly present within his photographs. There is undeniable tension between the passivity of his subjects—who are visibly left out of LA's car culture—and the fast-paced nature of the surrounding landscape. This particular photograph captures a view of the Pacific Coast Highway, long considered one of the state's most scenic roadways—a tourist attraction in and of itself—as it winds alongside the Pacific Ocean. Hernandez's alternative view challenges the positive connotations associated with this roadway and interjects the more difficult perspective of class inequality. Perhaps there are tourists in Hernandez's image obscured by the velocity of their blurred cars. The passengers who wait indefinitely, however, remain extremely visible in Hernandez's series, and the viewer is confronted with a new vision of the Pacific Coast Highway as a metaphor for class segregation.

It is easy to consider Anthony Hernandez's Long Beach series as documentary photography, primarily because the works illuminate the stark class differences that existed (and continue to exist) in Los Angeles. By including urban residents, as well as the landscapes that they inhabit, Hernandez also creates intimate portraits of LA itself where the city and its history are personified.

Anthony Hernandez's photographs are currently on view at SAAM in the exhibition, Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography through August 6, 2017.

Posted by Jeff on July 26, 2017 in American Art Here
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Throwback Thursday, Nam June Paik: Because Almost All of the Audience is Uninvited
July 20, 2017

It's Throwback Thursday! Here at Eye Level, we have decided it's a great opportunity to bring back some of our interesting posts from the past. Today is video art pioneer Nam June Paik's birthday. To celebrate, we're reposting former associate curator of film and media art, Michael Mansfield's post about our 2012 exhibition Nam June Paik: Global Visionary. Tonight, to share in the festivities in what would have been Paik's 85th birthday, Barbara London, Yale University's media arts critic and MoMA's former associate curator in the department of media and performance art, will give a talk, "What's Technology Got to Do With It?" The talk starts at 5:30 p.m. in SAAM's MacMillan Education Center and is free.


Piano Integral: View from entrance hall with the Ibach Piano destroyed by Joseph Beuys, at Exposition of Music--Electronic Television, 1963. Photo by Manfred Montwé © Manfred Montwé.

Against one wall in the Nam June Paik: Global Visionary exhibition, there stands a piano. It is an Alzinger-Brice upright piano, the evolution of a high culture instrument constructed for the middle class home. This one is disheveled, to say the least, exhibiting missing keys, protruding nails and broken wood; evidence of an enormous struggle. It is one of a number of artworks by Nam June Paik titled Prepared Piano from the 1963 exhibition Exposition of Music - Electronic Television. It appears to have been attacked, but it might be an injustice to read it simply as your average artist's struggle against cultural traditions. Perhaps it is much, much more optimistic than that.

Believe it or not, classical music has been the springboard for an enormous amount of radical innovation in the performing and visual arts. Representing the political and social superstructure of "high culture," rigid instrumentation and traditional compositions of orchestral music have repeatedly been the target for a creative class seeking to shatter conventions and shape new modes of expression.

At the turn of the 20th century, a "crisis of tonality" was identified, and composers and musicians began to systematically press the edges of the score. From sophisticated harmonics and complex chords to singular instruments and minor notes, composers assembled and deconstructed nearly every aspect of music in a conscious attempt to redefine musical arrangements from within the medium. The influential composer Arnold Schoenberg confronted the crisis and conceived of the "emancipation of dissonance" as a strategy to release at once composers and audiences from their harmonic bounds. Another composer, George Antheil, removed musicians altogether and wrote scores for mechanical pianos, airplane propellers and sirens, to be performed "as beautifully as an artist knows how." And then there was John Cage, who approached the piano, lifted the lid, and sat motionless in silence for 4 minutes, 33 seconds. These progressive responses to tradition in classical music would prove a watershed for a new generation of creative minds.

One of those creative minds was Nam June Paik. Though primarily known as a video artist, Paik's first interest was musical composition. This interest was immediately followed by, or perhaps simultaneous to, musical decomposition. Featured in the video documentary "The strange music of Nam June Paik," critics hailed him "as the world's most famous bad pianist." (If you watch the video, you'll notice that he is also not so good with a hammer). Paik studied composition and music in Japan at the University of Tokyo, where he wrote a thesis on Schoenberg. He continued his studies at the University of Munich and the Academy of Music Frieburg in Germany. There, his interest in revolutionary music making was encouraged by new relationships with Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Cage's influence on Paik was profound, enabling him through improvisational performances and "found sound." Paik embraced these new explorations of "chance" in his art making, whereby artists may set the stage for a performance, but relinquish control and allow the art to just happen.

[...] The beauty of moving theatre lies in this "surprise a priori," because almost all of the audience is uninvited, not knowing what it is, why it is, who is the composer, the player, organizer - or better speaking - organizer, composer, player. Paik, 1963

These concepts of improvisation and chance are critical to the understanding and experience of Paik's artwork. They are particularly apparent in Paik's Prepared Piano. In all its disheveled glory, Prepared Piano is an instrument that has been staged for a new sound experience. Augmented by the artist with buttons, toy cars, nails, coins, handles, motors, cans and an array of additional material, this piano anticipates an unpredictable concert. There's no telling what noise it might make when played. Rather than having been attacked for its perceived collusion with tradition, it has been prepared for an entirely new kind of concert. It is ironically optimistic in its composition, and therein lies the art.

Nam June Paik: Global Visionary runs through August 11, 2013.

Posted by Jeff on July 20, 2017 in American Art Here, Museums & Technology
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