Nam June Paik and Lewis Baltz at the NGA

July 26, 2011

Nam June Paik and Lewis Baltz are not a likely association. They’re not Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Picasso and Braque, John Cage and Merce Cunningham.

Born in Korea, Nam June Paik (1932-2006) was a contemporary, avant-garde composer who became the pioneer of video art. Lewis Baltz (b. 1945) is a fine art photographer who made a career out of capturing bleak industrial landscapes of parking lots, office buildings and empty storefronts. Paik worked in New York City, Baltz worked largely on the West Coast. The two artists never met in any substantial capacity or worked together, nor did they express any noted interest in one another.

What they do have in common is that their works are both on display in compelling, complimentary exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art. With these concurrent shows, the National Gallery has fostered a dialogue on the industrial and technological sprawl of the mid to late 20th century. Together the installations offer a look into the searching minds of modern artists dealing with the encroaching disaffection and homogeny of surrounding environments, cultures and medias. That these artists came to such similar conclusions in their work in such different ways is remarkable, but as the Gallery suggests, it is also perhaps inevitable. As art historian David Joselit said, “It’s hard not to ask oneself how something so simple has become so complex.”

Joselit was referencing Paik’s installation, now on view in the Tower Gallery in the East Wing of the museum. As with many references in modern art, this statement is at once glib, generalizing and grandly ubiquitous, while concurrently site-specific. The Paik installation is all of these things—which is not to say it isn’t great.

A lone candle burns in the middle of the totally dark room. Monitoring the wick with its infrequent flickering is a video camera, whose uncompromising gaze at a proximity of a few feet is—not unintentionally—hilarious. The camera is plugged into a jumble of wires, which the gallery leaves visible, connecting to a number of projectors that cast the candle across the room in a smattering of prismatic, Technicolor distortions and spliced RGB projections.

Off to the side a Buddha statue, defaced with paint and graffiti, stares at itself in a column of four stacked televisions, which display distorted images of the Buddha, which is in turn lit only by the light from the TVs that are reproducing its own image, and so on to infinity.

Indeed you ask yourself, standing in a room that is decidedly obsessed with itself and all its unsacred nothingness, how something so simple and pure as a candle is suddenly laid out in such nonsensical, overwrought terms. The Buddha, a symbol of holiness and enlightenment, becomes the center of its own limited universe. Something so virtuous turns unappealing, dirty and unwelcoming.

Much like the aluminum siding, cracked concrete walls, paint-flecked steel doors and potholed asphalt Baltz captured in his photographs. The great human striving for culture and community, beauty and betterment, is historically manifested in architecture. In this respect, Baltz’s portraits of deserted storefronts, alleyways, parking lots and gutter drains offer grim criticism of American taste and progress. Largely void of any perspective or horizons—and completely void of human life, natural elements and anything beautiful—these pictures draw attention to a loss of history, a cloying triumph of mass industrial corporation in the cultural landscape of our country.

Television, Paik’s medium of choice, is a part of this takeover. (Paik in fact made a point to note that he never actually watched TV, but used them only to distort or create images.) The artists together speak about a world in decline—not by way of bankruptcy, war or starvation, but by way of shriveling beliefs and restrained, unengaged consciousness.

However, maudlin sentiments aside, the shows also work very well as plain old art. Baltz’s photos are beautiful in an abstract way—many of his contemporaries were minimalists, and paintings by Richard Serra smartly accompany this exhibition. Baltz has a sharp, classical sense of composition, and his images induce a sort of hollow nostalgia. The Paik installation is in turn a lot of fun and eerily interactive. Stand behind the Buddha and you become part of the perpetual image; you are tempted to blow at the candle to watch the room bounce with light. Or perhaps you’re tempted to blow it out.

“In the Tower, Nam June Paik,” through October 2 in the Tower Gallery of the East Wing of the National Gallery. Lewis Baltz’s photography exhibition, “Prototypes/Ronde de Nuit,” through July 31 in the West Wing of the National Gallery. For more information visit

Ari Post at the Parish Gallery

Ari is a trained draftsman, and it shows in his series, “Place Names,” showing at the Parish Gallery in Georgetown, November 19-30. Ari’s paintings are “old school”—stripped of flash, subject matter irony and mixed media techniques of many painters showing today. The work is straight oil paining: pigment, linseed oil, turpentine and board, all applied with earnest, grit and hard labor.

This body of work is partially inspired by a combination of the painter’s Jewish heritage, a recent trip to Israel and a search for universal spirituality. Ari comments: “My great grandparents on both sides were born in small villages scattered throughout what is now Latvia, Poland and Russia, almost all of which were wiped out over the last century. When even these scraps of history are lost, what becomes of the ancestral traditions and beliefs? And what do they then mean? With cultures so violently uprooted and jostled, what is there to look back to?’’

Ari’s family history is one of migration, and his pieces are an expression of this background. He addresses the tragedy of these vanished places directly. As the show’s name implies, the titles of these paintings are largely drawn from Jewish Shtetls, or townships, from Latvia and Poland, most of which were wiped out during the Bolshevik Revolution and World War II. Along with the towns, centuries of tradition and heritage were lost to its people.

One of two larger pieces, “Bauske,” features three well-placed figures that crowd the space of the canvas. Two of the figures, contemplative in appearance, are juxtaposed and nearly mirror each other. A third, more youthful figure casts an open gaze that creates a psychic and visual contrast, which I read as knowledge of a fate that the two dominant figures are resigned to or unaware of. The reddish circular areas above each figure reflect an eternal presence, perhaps their souls.

This sense of displacement sits deep in Ari. His mother hails from South Africa, where her grandparents migrated from Eastern Europe. Immigrating to this country, she brought with her African masks, carvings and paintings, which Ari has viewed since childhood. Carried dormant in his memory for years, remnants of these images are revealed in his own paintings. This element of Ari’s work causes me to recall Richard Deibenkorn’s comments about composing from recollections of Bayeux Tapestry reproductions given to him in his childhood by his maternal grandmother.

Ari paints the gnarled hands and contemplative faces in the pictures in a direct manner. The anatomical aspects of the paintings are modeled to volume using interlocking and flowing flat planes, accented by strong graphite or etched lines. There is a sense of wood carving simply in the manner that Ari builds dimension in his figures. Additionally, much of the color of the work is earthy, perhaps akin to the colors of his mother’s African pieces. Ari’s work resonates with a viewer familiar with expressionist and possibly cubist work done before 1930, yet the style is unique and surprising.

Aside from the mystical intrigue of the contemplative figures and the unique manner that Ari paints, his painting “Zagare” stands out for its color composition of black, red and green. The figure’s massive blue-black beard and head covering weigh well against the carefully crafted red shape of the garment and the receding greenish-blue background, which are painted with equal thoughtfulness and care. The overall effect Ari creates in this and other pieces is one of separate elements subordinated to the organic whole of the image. One almost overlooks the delightful way the fingers of the sitter in “Zagare” rest on the cane he is holding.

This series of paintings provides a first look into the work of a young, ambitious painter. With unlimited potential and a deep reservoir of talent, Ari will no doubt produce much more work.

Ari Post’s exhibition, “Place Names,” will be showing at the Parish Gallery in Georgetown from November 19-30, with an opening reception on the 19th from 6-8 p.m. For more information visit [gallery ids="99549,104489,104496,104493" nav="thumbs"]

Behind the Walls of Jackson Art Center

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"]

An Intermission for Cross MacKenzie Gallery

Outside of Greek and Roman history, the sculptural and ceramic arts seem unfortunately neglected mediums. For every Alberto Giacometti or David Smith you can name, there are dozens more painters and architects that come to mind from those same eras. But the beauty and experience of 3-dimensional artwork remains an influential and important medium, which Rebecca Cross has been proving for the better part of her career. Since Cross opened the doors to her Georgetown gallery in March 2006, the Cross MacKenzie Gallery has given sculpture and ceramic artists a home in the local gallery community. For the neighborhood, it has been a source for contemporary sculptural and functional art, second to none in its quality and diversity.

Over the past five years, Cross MacKenzie has put on some of the most unique, fun, memorable, interactive and thought provoking exhibitions of any gallery in town. Cross will be relocating the Cross MacKenzie Gallery to a new space downtown over the course of the summer. She sat down to speak with us about her personal history, her experiences in Georgetown, owning a gallery in today’s economy, and the blessings and burdens of championing the sculptural and ceramic arts.

Why did you initially settle on Georgetown for your gallery? Do you have a long history with the neighborhood?

I love Georgetown. I love the architecture and community. Having grown up in the area, I always loved the neighborhood, and my husband Max grew up here since he was a teenager. I had thought about Old Town as well, which I also adore, but I live in Woodley Park, so Georgetown was frankly much closer. It was a pretty easy decision.

What was your M.O., so to speak, in opening a ceramic art gallery? Were there any in the city already?

There were no other galleries specializing in clay – Maurine Littleton [of Maurine Littleton Gallery on Wisconin Ave.] specializes in glass. The medium is so exciting, with such a diverse range of work, it was a shame not to have any representation of functional, sculptural art in such an art-friendly neighborhood. Clay can be organic, mechanical, it can take on any form—it’s an ancient, historical medium since man’s earliest days, and one still challenging artists today.

What was your area of focus in your school?

Well, my father is an architect, and I was raised with the arts being very central in our lives. He studied with Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School, at Harvard. I was an art major at Bennington College, and then spent a year studying sculpture at St Martin’s School of Art in London.

I got my Masters Degree in Painting from the Royal College of Art in London, where I also studied ceramics. After that, I assisted Sir Anthony Caro for 2 years in London, while working at the Hard Rock Café at night. I showed for 17 years at Addison/Ripley Gallery here in town, and later at the Ralls Collection, before opening Cross MacKenzie Gallery in Canal Square.

Where else has your work been featured?

My work is in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, many private collections, hotels and Embassies, among other places. I did set and costume designs for the Norwegian dance company Bresee Dansk Co., which was performed at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre. I also did sets and costumes for Ballet Rox in Boston, “Urban Nutcracker”—very colorful work. It’s in its 10th season now—I loved doing that. I’ve also been fortunate to receive a number of grants over the years.

I married Max MacKenzie, who is a brilliant photographer as well. He specializes in architectural photography and he has been very successful as a fine art photographer.

Can you describe the trend of the gallery business over the past decade?

The financial crisis was devastating. I started off well, doubling my sales from year 1 in the 3rd year, and then boom—the financial crisis hit. Everyone decided to pay down their credit cards and rebuild their retirement funds. All of a sudden people decided they could live without art—and they did, much to all the galleries’ demise. So many galleries have closed in DC. But slowly, people are finding they can enrich their lives again with purchases of art and they are taking advantage of the current climate, where they can negotiate to their benefit. Right now is actually a great time to buy art.

What other challenges have you faced owning a gallery?

The physical aspect of specializing in 3D art has been difficult. As a result, I’m moving towards showing more 2D work in the future. 3D is not only harder to sell, it is challenging to pack and ship. There are a lot of cumbersome logistics in dealing with 3D art.

What prompted your decision to move?

As much as I love the space I’m currently in, after 5 years it’s time to change my direction. Partly for the challenge of the stairs into the current gallery—three flights up and three flights down is a real problem for moving work! I also want to be closer to our home in Woodley Park, where I can walk to work. I’m looking forward to joining the gallery walk in Dupont Circle. Our part of Georgetown is rather hidden in Canal Square. It’s a beautiful environment—peaceful, lovely, a great location. But it’s perhaps too well kept a secret, and people complain about traffic and parking when coming from other parts of town. I love all the restaurants, and my clients often eat at the Sea Catch after openings, but there will be restaurants in Dupont Circle, too.

Do you find time to work on your own projects while juggling the responsibilities of the gallery?

I have just recently started doing my own work again since opening the gallery. The gallery is very demanding—curating, organizing and promoting each show is very time consuming, and my own work has taken a back seat. I hope to one day find a balance with the gallery and my work, but for now the gallery needs all of my attention.

So…tell us about the new gallery!

We’re moving to 2026 R Street, off Connecticut Avenue, collaborating in a space with designer Mary Drysdale, who owns the building. We will open by invitation and appointment over the summer, and we’re opening to the public in September, with an exhibition of Michael Fujita.

For more information visit [](

Curating for a Cause and Jackie Cantwell

Jackie Cantwell is a courageous young dynamo in the DC art world who has created Curating For A Cause, an organization that benefits non-profits through promoting DC artists. She spoke to us about her unique organization and her life.

Where are you from?

JC: I was born and bred in good ol’ Reston. My Dad is a painter and professor of computer art and animation at Montgomery County College. He also frequents my auctions as the Auctioneer and is known for hamming it up. I grew up in a house stacked high with artwork. One early memory I have is being perched on my Dad’s hip, with him asking me why each painting had a good composition. My Dad and I used to draw a cartoon called “Fuzzy Bunny” every night before I went to bed, about the adventures of an excitable male rabbit looking for love.

Later I majored in painting and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

My Mom has done it all: she got her BFA in photography and worked for NASA.

Who are you favorite artists?

JC: I admire people who do what makes them happy, no matter the stakes. I would include films by Wes Anderson and David Lynch. I also love the graphic nature of Jenny Saville’s paintings. Pablo Picasso is an oldie but goodie.

What got you into connecting artists to auction their work for charity?

JB: Last year I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a local non-profit called Dreams for Kids. With no budget and very little experience, I planned their first arts fundraiser in the form of an art show and auction.

I wanted to create arts events that were accessible to everyone. I was sick of stuffy, expensive, quiet events where everyone whispered and went home early.

I created Curating For A Cause, an organization that not only benefits non-profits monetarily, but also provides a platform for people to access good art, promote artistic talent, and connect with various networks, thus creating marketing opportunities for all parties involved. Our events are accessible to a diverse group of audiences and truly benefit all participants. These are charity events where there are real people, and good music, and there just happens to be high quality art that you might fall in love with, all to benefit a great cause.

What is your connection with Pink Line Project’s Philippa P.B. Hughes?

JC: I was looking for advice and wanted to see if Dreams For Kids could work with the Pink Line Project in some way. After putting on a show of work at Paolo’s in Georgetown I was looking for my next venture. Philippa told me to keep doing what I was doing and that I would find my way. She asked me if I wanted to write for the Pink Line Project and now I do. I learned from Philippa that you must be true to your own voice.

Who have been your mentors?

JC: Adam Lister, from the Adam Lister Gallery in Fairfax, has been a great mentor on all accounts. I admire Adam and how he provides free art activities for children. Also Andrew Horn, the executive director of Dreams For Kids in DC, has been there for every second of the growth of my organization. His energy and outlook are truly inspiring.

What’s been the biggest surprise for you in Curating For A Cause?

JC: The biggest surprise is what a great artistic community DC really has. I have also been surprised by the willingness and genuine interest the artists have shown in working with me.

Do you enjoy teaching, and what does it bring you?

JC: I love teaching kids. Watching a kid realize that blue and yellow make green: that’s it for me!

Visit Curating for a Cause online for more information. [gallery ids="99587,104914" nav="thumbs"]

Tamara Laird’s “Paisley Monuments”

The Cross Mackenzie Gallery, in Canal Square in Georgetown, has kicked off their artistic season with a small but resounding triumph. “Paisley Monuments,” the gallery’s latest exhibition of DC artist Tamara Laird, brings together a playful, natural whimsy with serene elegance, offering a fittingly contemporary aesthetic in a subtle sea of history.

Laird is an accomplished professional artist and a ceramics professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, whose travel has had a tremendous impact on her work. When still a student, she traveled to England and met many renowned British ceramists, including Bernard Leach. She spent time in Zaire, and in 1984 moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where she worked at the National Museum of Kenya on a project funded by the United Nations and taught art at the Kenyatta University. From there, she went to Bangkok Thailand, where she conducted extensive research in local ceramics, from traditional village production to full-scale industrial ceramic factories.

She participated in a tour of ceramic factories in Mexico that integrated traditional and contemporary industrial majolica production. She currently teaches majolica techniques for an annual summer study abroad program in Amalfi, Italy. Her studies and travels all work toward Laird’s is interested in finding the connection between local cultural and artistic development.

Her current works, exhibited in “Paisley Monuments,” are ceramic sculptures based on the paisley motif, a universally recognizable pattern that has been used for thousands of years. It originated in Persian culture, as a fertility symbol among other things, inspired by the shape of the cashew nut. The shape, mainly seen patterned in fabric throughout the world, is given vibrancy and tremendous fullness in the way that Laird has transformed these symbols into sculpture. It is reminiscent of the delicate beauty of a pregnant belly, the crane of a swan’s neck, the budding of a flower in springtime, and countless other allegorical allusions throughout so many cultures of the world.

And this is precisely why the work has such power. The work prompts your imagination to engage with it.

Which is not to take away from the raw aesthetic power of the works. The texture and luster Larid is able to achieve through her glazing process is remarkable. The works are all high fire ceramics, but she uses metallic glazes, called lusters, on many of the works, giving the feeling of soft, smooth metal. While some pieces resemble the clay from which they are molded, others look equally as if they were cast in bronze.

It would be impossible to review any individual piece in the show, as they all work socialistically (Tea Partyists be warned) toward the collective strength of the show. Walking into the Cross Mackenzie Gallery amidst these sculptures, reminiscent of Brancusi and Tim Burton in the same breath, is like stepping into a garden of suspended creation.

The garden-like quality is not lost on Laird, who has designed them to be outdoor friendly, to be fit among gardens and as outdoor sculptures. She was even in a recent show at the National Botanical Gardens involving plant-inspired artwork. But don’t mistake my intentions—the works would be beautiful anywhere.

The Cross Mackenzie Gallery, at 1054 31st St NW, in Canal Square, is run by Rebecca Cross. For more information about this exhibition and others, visit or email [gallery ids="99602,105037" nav="thumbs"]

Gods and Conservation: Paul Jett at the Freer/Sackler

Walking down the long staircase and into the galleries of the Sackler, a large stucco Gandharan head of a Bodhisattva from Afghanistan sits on a pedestal above eye level. Sensuous and spiritual at once, its lips are full and it is crowned and has flowing hair. The spiritual dimension is evoked with the semi-closed eyes and the tension of the eyebrows, seemingly meditative. It is many times larger than human scale and must have stood on top of a very large body.

When Paul Jett, head of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research of the Freer/Sackler, first saw the piece, it was covered with detritus of almost 2,000 years. Jett related to me, “Pieces you spend a long time working on you get more attached to. I feel very attached to the Bodhisattva. No one would display it because of the way it looked. I thought this piece had potential, so I spent eight months working on it, often through a microscope, as stucco is very delicate. Everyone liked it so much that now it is on permanent exhibition.”

Adjacent to the Bodhisattva is an exhibition of Khmer art curated by Paul Jett and Louise Court, the highly regarded curator of ceramics at the Galleries. The exhibition will later go to the Getty in Los Angeles. The Khmer bronzes displayed are extraordinary in their energy and refinement. They have a certain formal reserve that is very apparent in Khmer stone sculpture, but due to the scale of the pieces they are more intimate. Paul Jett played a major role in this exhibition, mentoring the conservation staff at the Phnom Penh museum in Cambodia where these works are from.

As we walked through the exhibition, Paul Jett recalled his early career: “I grew up in New Mexico, where I pursued interests in photography, painting, and sculpture. I got a Bachelor of Fine Arts in New Mexico. I worked at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts doing a post-graduate fellowship and came to D.C. and got the job at the Freer/Sackler. I studied bronze casting at Glen Echo. When I started working at the Freer/Sackler, I realized that I had prepared for it by studying Mandarin, as well as Chinese philosophy and history.”

Working with Asian bronzes has involved Jett in precarious, technical studies with gold and silver. Asian bronzes often have silver as inlay or are coated in gold. The philosophy of conservation today, according to Jett, is “Do no harm to the object, make repairs unobtrusive, though not exactly invisible. And importantly, all repairs have to be able to be undone.” In looking at art in museums he says, “I do notice how it’s been restored, it’s hard to turn that part of me off.” He says of his work on pieces, “It will last for hundreds of years. We make decisions sometimes on our own or will consult with curators or directors depending on the piece.”

The work with the Phnom Penh Museum started in 2005, setting up the conservation lab. Most of the training took place in Phnom Penh. Jett says, “There was a blank slate for most of the students.” He says that this was an advantage, as he did not have to deprogram anyone. Jett became close to his colleagues and students who did most of the work on the pieces in the exhibition. “They are doing fine on their own,” he says.

One thing he did as a demonstration was to fill in a bit of the Nandi, a large 12th- to 13th-century bronze. It is discernibly not an Indian Nandi, yet having a similar languor. Many of the figures of the gods in the show are based on Indian prototypes, but have evolved into their own distinct Khmer-ness. The Ganesh has none of the earthiness found in his Indian prototype, even though it has a similar physique.

Being with Paul Jett at the Gods of Angkor show made me look harder at how the pieces were put together originally and through restoration. We stopped to admire an incredible bronze crowned Buddha from the 12th century. Holding up its arms in abhaya mudra it blesses this beautiful show. [gallery ids="99168,103020,103009,103017,103014" nav="thumbs"]

What’s Red, White, Blue and Black: American Modernism and Rothko

At the National Gallery of Art, early American Modernism from the Shein collection is featured on the first floor of the East Wing. The National Gallery does not have a strong showing of works from this critical period in American art, and the Shein collection will help fill in the gap. There are some very strong pieces here by major players, including Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and Stuart Davis. But it is the lesser-known artists that can sometimes surprise.

One such surprise is Patrick Henry Bruce’s “Painting (Still Life)” that rivals a similar piece by Davis. In many ways I prefer the Bruce, which has a quiet energized classicism. Bruce’s “Painting” was completed in 1919, in the heat of the fray. Davis’ “Unfinished Business” was finished in 1962, toward the end of Davis’ career. Bruce was a much more important painter than Davis in 1919. He was a friend of Sonia and Robert Delaunay and possibly influenced the stark reductivism Matisse adopted in the ’30s for his large “Dance” murals. Unfortunately, Bruce, a descendant of Patrick Henry, killed himself in 1936. Though Davis achieved more and left a greater mark on American abstraction, Bruce deserves to be remembered.

I recall James Rosenquist remembering his teacher Edwin Dickinson, who said that the light was all off in New York studios, since north in New York City was not true north. If there is a northern light, it exists in Dickinson’s work, including “South Wellfleet Inn,” circa 1950-60. It is off every beaten track as a painting, coming close to a kind of obscurist realism. It is playful and morbid, like most of the work of Dickinson’s I have seen.

One cannot escape the fact that O’Keeffe’s “Dark Iris No. 2” and Hartley’s “Pre-War Pageant” eclipse most of the rest of the show, with the exception of Marin’s “Written Sea.” The Marin is one of the most restrained I have ever seen. It is more of a drawing than a painting, but masterful. The O’Keeffe and the Hartley are both at the center of their respective identities. O’Keeffe’s “Iris” is resplendently sensual. With Hartley, I quote Georgia O’Keeffe on his shows at Steichen’s gallery and say it’s “like a brass band in a small closet.”

Going into the tower where Matisse’s cutouts used to hang is now as Zen a place as I have been in D.C. It’s the home of several of Mark Rothko’s darkest work in as perfect an installation as possible. Somehow the off-rectangle of the tower with its high ceiling could not be a better setting.

The intermittent playing of Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” makes it complete. Feldman has written of his music that, “I envisioned an immobile procession not unlike the friezes on Greek temples.” A friend of mine recalled what Rothko said, on visiting a temple in Greece, “I’ve always been painting them, now I am in one.”

Darkness is not a metaphysical state much in favor these days. The medical industry is making huge amounts of money as a result. But facing darkness — and rendering it — is tough. Shostakovich did especially in his 14th and 15th quartets, as did Beethoven in his late quartets. In painting it is rarer. I recall Turner’s “Peace – Burial at Sea,” who, when he was questioned on the black sails he had painted, replied “I only wish I had any color to make them blacker.”

Reflecting on Rothko’s pictures, they do seem to me to bear some relation to Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings — though unlike Rothko, Reinhardt was ironic in his black pictures. Rothko is closer akin Gerard Manley Hopkins’ in his poem “Carrion Comfort”: “Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”

“American Modernism” runs through January 2, 2011. [gallery ids="99176,103189,103193" nav="thumbs"]

Weber and Wright at Plan B

When I look at Mike Weber’s work, I sense the subjects of the late 19th- and early 20th-century photographs he incorporates into his work have been displaced into a contemporary setting where they are perfectly content and at ease. There is an enchanting mysteriousness to the work. Weber says, “I focus on subtle facial expressions of my subjects and many are looking at the camera or photographer as if it was the first time they had been exposed to a camera.” In less capable hands, the subjects could have been soulless, but Weber is able to create hosts who offer the viewer access to the artist’s own deft craftsmanship.

Weber hand paints or stencils letters into the work with quietness that does not overpower the central figurative themes. Even in the piece “In a Broken Dream,” where the word DREAM is painted backward and prominently across the picture, the viewer’s gaze doesn’t fixate but moves through the entire piece, taking note of Weber’s masterful use of dripped paint, pencil markings and color. One of the most interesting aspects of Weber’s pieces are the calligraphic lines he scrawls around the edges or over the photos. These black, red, blue or gold lines unify the work and fuse the sepia photos into the overall picture plane.

Jason Wright’s “Heartland” series is displayed opposite Weber’s and provides a good counterpoint. Write applies his paint impasto with a pallet knife, creating commanding, austere pieces. Like Weber, Wright generates a sense of mystery in his work, but with buildings on a landscape that verge on silhouette instead of portraiture. I sense he plans each picture carefully and then executes them in a quick, confident manner. From the titles such as “We Are Not the Same,” “Together” and “Nostalgias of Another Life,” one concludes these paintings are allegory and Wright confirms this by saying, “I wanted my work to haunt the viewer and evoke questions about their own feelings when it comes to a home.”

At first glance, three colors dominate Wright’s work: black, white and tan. He applies classic composition principles and linear ruled shapes that meet abruptly, creating scenes reminiscent of houses standing alone or in groups on desert or farmland horizons. All this happens in the central picture plane which gives way to something else: light. On the edges of the pictures, Write has left or painted in pinkish flakes that draw the viewer’s eye around the painting before resting again on the austere central theme of the work. The stark contrast of hue, value and intensity Write creates by juxtaposing tans, whites and blacks at the center of the pieces against the pinks on the edges gives his work vibrancy, charm and that little surprise that keeps a viewer’s attention.

The exhibits are on display at Plan B Gallery (1530 14th St.) until Aug. 29. [gallery ids="99183,103264" nav="thumbs"]

Remembering the Washington Gallery of Modern Art

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"]