I need to get something off my chest. Surrealism annoys me a little. It always feels like a cultish charade of midcentury intellectuals: the aggressive anti-rationalism, the unnecessary visual lexicons of the pseudo-Freudian subconscious, the exploration of the mind’s mysterious fissures, the creation of new realities that defy constraints of earthly existence…it’s all just a little much for me. I find its sensibilities much better fitted to a Loony Tunes parody than a deadly serious museum wall (for a good time, Google “Porky in Wackyland,” 1938). This is not to say Surrealism never had its time or place. An evolutionary offshoot of the Dada movement, it was born in France as a retaliation against the societal trauma caused by World War I. All across Europe cities were leveled, communities were displaced and national currencies were tanked by hyperinflation. A flu epidemic had wiped out nearly six percent of the world, and a generation of European men were lost to the trenches. The world was no longer rational, so writers and artists determined to dig beyond their rational intellect to decipher it – perhaps in search of deeper meaning, but likely as much an act of defiance and self-preservation. Surrealism was founded in 1924 by the French writer André Breton. He defined it as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express...the actual functioning of thought.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Surrealism rapidly caught on across Europe, and the outset of World War II found many of its leaders taking refuge in New York City. The wide exposure of their work to American artists was one of the major catalysts in New York’s later development as the epicenter of postwar art and culture. Though Surrealism broadened the boundaries of art profoundly, its arcane ideologies and strange elitism rendered the movement insular and prohibitive – a perception that fine art has never really overcome, and now seems largely to have embraced. (Such vainglorious and esoteric practices arguably foreshadowed the profligate economic culture of today's contemporary art market.) Furthermore, its initial nobility of concept gave way to a hackneyed commercialism by second-rate imitators. All of this, oddly enough, is to say that I had a damn good time at the Phillips Collection’s latest exhibition, “Man Ray – Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare,” on view through May 10. I experienced frustration, complexity, humor, disappointment, apathy, interest, excitement and occasional moments of great beauty; perhaps not dissimilar from a given day inside my head. From the standpoint of Surrealism, this is a smashing success. My fundamental conflicts with the subject matter never waned, but I walked away with renewed – if weary – reverence for the accomplishments of Surrealism, and particularly those of Man Ray, the only true American Surrealist. Working in Hollywood in the late 1940s, Man Ray (1890-1976) created a series of paintings called the “Shakespearean Equations,” which he considered his defining creative vision. They were inspired by a series of photographs he had taken a decade earlier of 19th-century mathematical models and sculptures. The Phillips exhibition displays the paintings, photographs and models together for the first time in history, along with other paintings, photographs and assemblages by the artist. The show illustrates Ray’s conceptual fixation with human/object interrelation: making people that look like things and things that look like people. In many ways it shows how Surrealism has affected our visual notions of the subconscious as much as the subconscious has affected notions of Surrealism. For all his clear ambition, Man Ray was not a great painter. Unlike Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico or Max Ernst, whose eyes for phantasmagoria were on par with their painterly finesse, Ray’s canvases are tedious and inexpertly rendered. However, his photographs are stark, lucid and remarkable. They hold their own against the best Surrealist work, as well as any photography from this era. In Ray’s photographs, the complex intermingling of object and anatomy, light and shadow, atmosphere and geometry get distorted both physically and emotionally. For instance, in two corresponding plates we see the formal juxtaposition of a peach and a deceivingly racy perspective of a woman’s bum, hands and toes. The illusion is so effective that it takes a moment to understand what we are even staring at. In his famous “Le Violon d’Ingres,” a model’s body transforms into a violin, inspired by Ingres’s Neoclassical paintings “Valpinçon Bather” and “Le Bain turc.” It’s impossible not to appreciate the whimsy. To a lesser extent, Ray’s models are clever, but they feel like carnival games: charming, enjoyable, but of little consequence. Ironically, what are always more impressive are his photographs of these models. A great demonstration of this point is the series of “Non-Euclidean Objects” in the corner of the fourth gallery. There is the model itself, a geometric soccer ball of sorts. Then there is a photograph of the object, and a drawing of the object. Even with the object directly before us, its photograph, hanging on the wall behind it, is far more powerful. The way Ray manipulates the gradual value of shadows against the shifting planes of the object’s surface is stunning. He makes the photograph express what reality does not. And I don’t even remember what the drawing looks like. Black-and-white photography was Ray’s greatest achievement; he saw something truly original through the lens of his camera. Using shadows and light, he made images of mundane objects that maintain their essence but exist simultaneously as beautiful earthly abstraction. His silver prints of an egg beater and photographic equipment are notably exceptional. But this is never clearer than in the final gallery, with the “Shakespearean Equations.” (As a point of interest and debate, the arrogance of which I earlier accused the surrealist movement is on full display in the very title of this series, as the exhibit text admits Ray chose it for no particular reason. He just seems to have liked it—and it also happens to be preposterously smug.) Each of the paintings try to wring out its nebulous intrigue like water from a vaguely damp cloth. Meanwhile, the objects on display are interesting to admire in the same way as a Tim Burton movie miniature might be; their intricacies and sheer existence are strange and lovely, if not achieving quite the force of a true sculpture. Then there are the photos of the models, which transcend the objects themselves. All sense of scale, proportion and space are elevated; Ray’s use of composition culls an emotive visual vocabulary of the grandest Roman architecture. They are disconcertingly anthropomorphic, too, drawing us in and pulling us out through their undulating rhythms of shadows and light. The photographs discover an internal logic all their own that never betrays a haunting essence of the unknowable. Looking at them, we don’t even have to try – they take us ever so naturally along for the ride. At its best, this is what the art of Surrealism can do: capture our minds and usher us into its alternate reality. Here, we exist momentarily in a world we can never truly enter, for it survives like a flickering candle in the dark recesses of our minds. “Many Ray—Human Equations” is on view through May 10. For more information visit www.PhillipsCollection.org
If the Washington Gallery of Modern Art were mentioned in conversation, most would not register the name. It would likely be assumed that whomever speaking had been referring to any number of alternative DC art institutions – the East Wing of the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, the American Art Museum, The Phillips Collection (famously America’s first museum of modern art). However, though few may remember it now, the Washington Gallery of Modern Art (WGMA), while only open for seven short years in the 1960s, was a major force in establishing the District in the forefront of contemporary art. After the mid-century shockwave of painters like Jackon Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning, who had together incinerated centuries of artistic boundaries and limitations, the direction of fine art was aberrantly unclear to many. With such an undefined and endless landscape of possibilities, painting became an entirely new, somewhat chaotic domain, ushering in a wide influx of late abstract expressionism and countless subsequent movements and conceptual innovations. New York City, as the perpetual colossus of world culture, had claimed near authoritarian control of the fast-paced society of modern art. Prophetic gallerist Leo Castelli had built a personal infantry of loyal artists led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The MoMA was acquiring amplitudes of new work and declaring the immediate genius of new artists almost as soon as they emerged from school – Frank Stella became among the elite museum acquisitions at the age of 23. Most major contemporary artists were working out of the city. There didn’t seem to be much noise coming from anywhere else. On October 28, 1961, the WGMA opened its doors, bringing serious attention and notoriety to Washington’s art community, championing this new era of fine art and introducing one of DC’s own art movements into the vernacular. Co-founded by Alice Denney – matron of the Washington avant-garde who went on to found the wildly successful community darling, Washington Project for the Arts – the gallery brought a wealth of influential American artists and works to the District, while garnering national attention to working artists within the city. Incorporated as a nonprofit organization, the gallery resided in Dupont Circle, converted from the large carriage house of the headquarters of the Society of Cincinnati. (The Society of Cincinnati, founded in 1783 by the officers of the Continental army, is still the nation’s oldest patriotic organization, dedicated to preserving the memory of the American Revolution.) The gallery’s first director, Adelyn Breeskin, had just recently retired as director from the Baltimore Museum of Modern Art. One of the gallery’s earliest exhibitions, which caught the attention of the art community at large, was the Franz Kline Memorial Exhibition in October 1962, put up almost immediately following the artist’s death in May of that year. Denney was curator of the exhibition. The gallery’s collection included works from Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Marcel Duchamp, and a cultivation of contemporary American art movements from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Late abstract expressionism, color field painting, minimalism, and pop art were all represented. Their “Popular Image Show” in 1963 brought to the District many of the most highly prized contemporary artists of the day; Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, George Brecht, Claes Oldenburg, and James Rosenquist among them. At the gallery’s turbulent “Pop Festival,” also in 1963, composer John Cage performed with the Judson Dancers, and Rauschenberg debuted his now famous performance piece, “Pelican.” However, what propelled the WGMA to the forefront of the artistic community was its 1965 breakthrough show, “Washington Color Painters.” Touring around the nation, the exhibition introduced the art world to a group of local DC painters now known as the Washington Color School, which included artists Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, and Morris Louis. With bold, thick lines of colors, harmonious compositions, and clean shapes, the Washington Color Painters created iconic reflections of Matisseian joy and the subconscious melancholy behind all beauty. Towards the mid 1960s, with the expansion of the National Gallery of Art, a more active contemporary arts program at the Corcoran, and the loudly touted development of the Hirshhorn Museum, the WGMA, small and relatively modest, lost its unique foothold in the Washington art community. The Oklahoma Art Center, now the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, purchased the WGMA’s 154-piece collection in September 1968 and the gallery shut down. The WGMA came and went like many of the art movements of its time: riveting, innovative, and short-lived. The Hirshhorn still frequently displays pieces by the artists of the Washington Color School, including masterworks by Noland and Louis. While the gallery is long since closed, it brought life and national attention to Washington’s art community when it was in dire need. And in the richness of the DC art community, the echoes of its spirit can still be felt today. [gallery ids="99188,103298" nav="thumbs"]
This fall art season has brought a number of heavy-hitting exhibits to the Washington stage. Edgar Degas’ dancers arrived en masse to the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran Gallery’s 30 Americans exhibit has ignited racial and social discourse through the work of internationally acclaimed contemporary African American artists, and Andy Warhol has all but taken over the National Mall, with concurrent shows at both the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn. Looming on the near horizon are major exhibitions of Picasso, Annie Leibovitz and George Bellows. But with all the sweeping, florid grandiosity of these major retrospectives, Harry Callahan at 100 stands out for just the opposite reasons, and in all the right ways. Tucked away in the basement floor of the National Gallery, the collection of work on view, commemorating the renowned photographer on the centenary of his birth, brings us perhaps the most intimate, utterly immersive show of the season. Throughout his career, Callahan proved himself a discerning and incisive observer of the American subconscious, exploring a diverse range of visual ideas and concerns. He was also a fine teacher, as head of the photography department at the Institute of Design in Chicago and then a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. A college dropout with no early artistic ambitions and almost no formal training, he grew up “not being able to do anything that I felt good about,” until he picked up photography as a hobby. Five years later, he was a professional photographer. Callahan’s first major influence as a photographer, and someone who had a profound effect on his career, was Ansel Adams, who he met through a photography club while living in Detroit in his 20s. Later in life, Callahan said of Adams: “There was something about what he did that hit me just right… He had pictures which were what I felt was photography… And I don’t think they were the great pictures, or the ones that were considered great of his, that really made me excited. It was the close-up pictures, near the ground, which I felt from then on I could photograph anything. I didn’t have to go to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, I could photograph a footprint in the sand and it would be like a sand dune. And I think this was probably the most freeing thing that could have ever been for me.” The grandeur of the ordinary and the limitless scale of the intrapersonal are ongoing themes in Callahan’s work. And while he was also well known for his bold and constant visual experimentation (he was, among other things, one of the first fine art photographers to experiment with color), what stands out in this concisely curated show, which spans work throughout the course of Callahan’s entire career, is the status to which he raises our most basic surroundings and occurrences. You will see trips to the beach. You will see trees throughout the season. You will see parked cars. You will see weeds and grass and junk. You will see buildings, storefronts and houses the same as you see when you look out your front door. And all of these images are engrained with a restlessness and fascination, as if the artist, having forced himself to evaluate the world immediately around him, demands that we too consider our world and come to a quiet understanding. However, the most powerful series of images are of Callahan’s wife Eleanor. A photographer’s portrait of a loved one is hardly uncommon. Alfred Stieglitz, a seminal founding figure in fine art photography, famously photographed his wife, Georgia O’Keefe, with brazen sexual charge. Photographer Edward Weston’s portraits of his wife Flora are stark, severe and contemporary. But Callahan’s portraits of Eleanor are love songs in thin, black frames, and that sincere vulnerability is what makes them so engrossing. They show woman as woman, lover, mother and daughter, and speak of a more encompassing relationship based in profound trust, love and respect. Whether wrapped in a coat outside a bleak apartment building or lying naked in their bed, Eleanor becomes a symbol of a husband’s perception of his wife’s beauty, strength and fragility. And Eleanor does her part, looking into the camera, saying everything and nothing with her gaze, like she is looking right into her husband’s eyes. Callahan’s photographs work on a level that comfortably serves dual, perhaps opposing functions. On the one hand, you can evaluate the socially critical, the autobiographical, the theoretical, the experimental and the technical nature of his work and walk away with your brain tingling. At the same time, and with equal bearing, the photographs are plainly beautiful. They are nice to look at. Like a Rothko or a Rockwell, there is a peaceful and satisfying presence about the work that washes you over inexplicably. Anonymous building facades of endless brick; cold, leafless trees reaching their draconian fingers into the ever-cloudy skies; the pensive, lovely faces of women, their downcast eyes distracted by the very matter of life, wherever it may be. Callahan’s images are beautiful because they are made up of that which we balance just outside of our daily attention. These are the ever-present backgrounds—emotionally and physically—of our own stories. It feels like Callahan just chose to tell them. ‘Harry Callahan at 100’ is on view at the National Gallery of Art through March 4, 2012. For more information visit NGA.gov.
On Nov. 15, the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board will consider an application to make the Exorcist Steps a historic landmark, similar to but not on par with the presidential and war memorials.
The Hirshhorn just opened a major exhibition of rock-star Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the museum’s third in five years. It is a highly personal...
Michael Moore made an appearance at the D.C. premiere of his documentary, "Fahrenheit 11/9," on Sept. 17. The two-hour film is about the 2016 election and the subsequent presidency of Donald Trump.
The National Gallery of Art is not your average neighborhood art gallery. While part of the D.C. community, the National Gallery of Art is a...
Kay Jackson is a local artist whose paintings have garnered national and international acclaim, including a commission by President Clinton for the official White House holiday card in 1997. Working in an inspired sunroom-studio on the third floor of her Dupont Circle home, she has long focused her work on addressing environmental concerns, such as endangered species, pollution and the loss of animal habitat. Her current exhibition at Addison/Ripley Fine art, running through March 3, continues her decades-long pursuit and calls upon the near extinct artistic tradition of gilding to help communicate her vision. Jackson has long employed gold leaf techniques in her work and for the exhibition has created gilded icons of endangered species, drawing parallels to the endangered crafts she employs in the work’s creation. Jackson learned the art of gilding through her husband, William B. Adair, a master gilder, frame historian and owner and founder of Gold Leaf Studios in Dupont Circle. Adair is among a small handful of international authorities on frame fabrication, conservation and the nearly extinct art of gilding: applying fine gold leaf to the surfaces of paintings, wood, frames or anything else you could possibly conceive. He has employed his expertise extensively with every major museum in the city and consults with gallerists, architectural firms and private collectors throughout the world. The oldest and most common form is a process called water gilding, Jackson explains. After first applying layers of gesso to linen or wood — for a painting or a frame — the gilder then applies a layer of clay and glue, called bole, to help the small thin sheets of gold leaf adhere. The applied gold is then burnished and can be lightly manipulated. For a textured, dynamic surface, such as embossed vines wrapped about a picture frame, warm gesso can be carefully ladled upon the surface to create the patterns before laying the gold leaf, a process called pastiglia. Examples of gold leaf abound in museums and buildings around the District, perhaps most prominent displayed in the National Gallery of Art’s permanent collection of 13th and 14th century Italian paintings, which is all but overrun by brilliant gold leaf altarpieces. But rarely is gold leaf seen employed in contemporary settings, and in these gilded icons of endangered species now on display, Jackson has drawn a remarkable and fitting parallel to the ancient, endangered craft of gilding. A technically brilliant artist in every sense, Jackson has made more than just paintings in these gold leaf works. They are intricate, cryptic, glowing panels and boxes that Jackson has constructed entirely, encasing the endangered animals — from crayfish and salmon to the spotted owl — in armatures of gold and surrounded by symbols that span multiple time periods and iconologies. Jackson custom designs the frames for each work, inspired by 14th century panel paintings. She herself observes that her boxes are like 16th century cabinets of curiosities, those assembled by wealthy European collectors to celebrate and catalogue their knowledge of the world. Yet despite these callings upon the past, the works look completely contemporary. Her pieces depict both the fragility and resiliency of our ecosystems and species, and they connect the vulnerability of our planet with the delicacy of our artistic culture. This is also echoed in the act of creating the work itself. “Creating art is an act of faith,” Jackson says. “With each passing year it takes an increasing commitment to continue what most people think is a spontaneous and blissful activity.” More of Jackson’s series of gilded endangered icons will be on display at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, the museum for the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., accompanying a historic frame exhibition by husband Adair on the history of frames from the Byzantine to modern period. For information on Kay Jackson’s Addison/Ripley exhibit, visit AddisonRipleyFineArt.com. For information on her Muscarell Museum of Art exhibit, visit Web.wm.edu/Muscarelle. [gallery ids="100470,115891" nav="thumbs"]
In addition to Christmas music, shows and meals, there are jazz, beer and comedy options this weekend — not to mention a Falafel Frenzy and a Matzo Ball on Christmas Eve.
Since the late 1960s, the Jackson Arts Center has been a unique haven for artists within the city and Georgetown neighborhood. Without the studio space available in many cities around the country, Washington artists often find themselves without suitable accommodations, working out of their homes or group-leased office space. But when the Jackson School closed its doors as a public elementary school, a colony of artists took control of the Victorian schoolhouse and transformed its spacious rooms with tall, wide windows into ideal studio space for artists of all kinds. Not as commercialized as the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA, the Jackson Art Center is an ideal retreat for serious artists who want to focus on their craft and contribute to the community’s culture. Over forty years later its vision has remained steadfast and the artwork enriching. The Jackson Arts Center, 3050 R St. NW, will be holding their Open House on Sunday December 5, from 12 to 5 p.m. The artists will be in their studios ready to discuss their work, and some is even for sale. And with the holidays just around the corner…you get the idea. The work will speak for itself. I sat down with Simma Liebman, a painter and president of the Jackson Arts Center, for a Q&A about the history of the Jackson Art Center and its importance within the community: What is the history of the Jackson Arts Center? How long has it been with the community? The Jackson School was one of several DC public elementary schools in Georgetown, until the late 1960s when enrollment dwindled. The 115-year-old building stood vacant at the corner of R Street and Avon Lane for close to ten years when a group of local artists inquired about renting the building for use as studio space. DC Public Schools agreed to lease the building to A.Salon, a group of independent artists, as well as to the Corcoran School of Art. After several years, the Corcoran moved out and leased a building at Wisconsin Avenue and Reservoir Road. DCPS allowed A.Salon to assume the full lease for Jackson. When word got out among DC artists that studio space was available in an old public school building, we were inundated with inquiries. Within a month, our A.Salon group grew from five to 30 artists. We are currently operating under a 15-year lease with DCPS and have reorganized as Jackson Art Center. There are now more than 45 artists using the building. Tell me about the space and what you’ve done with it. Jackson was built in the same style as many Georgetown public schools: three floors, four large classrooms per floor, each with a narrow “coat room” outside of it, with bathrooms in the basement, wide staircases, and no elevators. When we moved in, we found quite a few reminders that the building had been designed for young children—rows of coat hooks three feet above the floor, small toilets and sinks and so on. The building retains many features that show its age. There is a massive boiler system (complete with coal bin, although now we use gas) that provides heat to radiators that hiss and clank as steam moves up in them; a predecessor to today’s fire alarm systems whereby if there’s a fire or smoke emergency in the boiler room, a stream of water gushes out of a first floor pipe to the sidewalk in front of the building, to alert any passersby to get help; and electrical wiring designed for light bulbs only. But the space is fabulous for artists. High ceilings, large windows, lots of light. By dividing the large classrooms into as many as four spaces each, we can now accommodate 45 artists, with lots of common areas for members to display their work. When we moved in, about 25 years ago, DCPS provided some maintenance to the building, but our current lease requires that we maintain the building ourselves. So far, with rent credits provided by DCPS, we have been able to repair the roof, install a new boiler, repair an outside wall and perform some mold abatement. How long have you personally been with the center? I joined A.Salon in 1988. At that time, the Corcoran was occupying most of the classroom space. At first I shared a basement studio with another painter, but when the Corcoran moved out in 1990, we both moved up to the top floor. We are basically a volunteer organization. Since I’ve held a studio in the building since 1988, I’ve been involved in the organization of the membership in various ways. We established a seven-member board as well as three operating officers. I am the current president. What was it like when you first got here? Has it changed? Jackson is a registered historic building. With its position on R Street across from Montrose Park, it has great views from every window. When I moved in, the Corcoran had already made some improvements in some classrooms: wood floors, updated wiring for computers. But basically, it was an old building with great windows and light. In the early 90’s, the city performed some asbestos removal, and, as I mentioned before, over the years we have had to repair the roof and gutters. Physically, the building is showing its age. But we are determined to preserve it as best we can. What makes Jackson Art Center such a commodity to the city, from the perspective of the artist as well as the patron/public? There is a dearth of affordable studio space in this city. There are no old “factory” buildings like you find in New York or Philadelphia that can be easily converted to studios. Many area artists tend to work either at home or in small retail spaces scattered around the city. We are very grateful that DC has allowed us to convert the Jackson School building into shared studio space, and we try to take every opportunity to reciprocate by being good neighbors and opening up our doors to the community. Are all the artists members of the Georgetown community? 21 Jackson artists live in Georgetown. Most of the rest live elsewhere in DC and a few in Virginia and Maryland. Has the city been helpful in supporting and maintaining your efforts? Is there anything you would like to see change? We are most appreciative of the city’s support. Likewise, we hope to continue to be able to offer studio space to DC artists as well as preserve this historic building. The only change we would like to see is no change. Do you guys often involve the community with yourselves and what you’re doing? Part of our mission is community involvement. While our building is accessible only by members, we open our doors twice a year—in May and December—for the public to see the building and visit artists in their studios. Periodically, we hold “Art Talks,” inviting the public to attend a lecture or presentation. What are your hopes for the future of Jackson Art Center? It seems that in the 22 years I’ve had a studio at Jackson, the consistent concern has been for our future in the building. Since there are really no art studio buildings in DC like the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, it would be terrific if the city and Georgetown could help establish Jackson as a permanent art building. I believe the neighborhood would appreciate having the building used for purposes other than another condominium. And there are endless opportunities for us to interact with the community, such as providing meeting/event space, art classes and lectures. Any projects in the works now? Yes! Our Open Studios will be held on Sunday, December 5, from 12 to 5 pm. As always we invite everyone to stop by and see what we’re doing. Most of our members will be there in their studios, happy to talk to you about their work and, of course, to sell you a piece or two. It’s a fun afternoon with music and refreshments. And children are welcome, too. And always, our biggest project is preserving the Jackson building. Now that our roof is fixed, we need to address the windows, which are in bad shape and in desperate need of replacement. And there are a lot of them. We’re presently in negotiations with the DC Realty Office to do this major repair. After that, we hope to repaint the common interior spaces. Visit the Jackson Art Center online for more information. [gallery ids="99566,104794,104820,104816,104799,104812,104804,104808" nav="thumbs"]