“Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings” at the Sackler

July 26, 2011

The thousand-year-old “Shahnama,” or Persian book of kings, is resplendently represented
in a jewel of a show at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “Shahnama,” written by the revered ninth century Persian poet Firdawsi, is “in its cultural significance and popularity on equal footing with the works of Shakespeare, Homer and the Mahabharata,” says Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic art, and organizer of the exhibition.

It is impossible to overstate the cultural importance of Firdawsi. It is not a subtle fact that Arabic is not the national language of Iran, a predominantly Muslim country. Firdawsi’s writing of the “Shahnama”
revived Farsi and made it the cultural as well as the everyday language of Iran. Farsi is spoken in part of Afghanistan, but it was also the court language of the Mughals in India. Firdawsi did this through retelling the actual and sometimes mythical and fantastical stories of the Kings of Iran until the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Included in the tales are three women monarchs. The “Shahnama”
also uses the “Avesta,” a collection of texts sacred to the Zoroastrians, as one of its sources.

The “Shahnama” is not a simple book of myth and history. It also emphasizes justice, a concept that perhaps came into Judaism during contact with the Persians. It also emphasizes divine glory, known as “farr” in modern Farsi.

What can make the eye feel the sublime through color more than the Persian miniature? There is nowhere that greater pleasure can be taken in the concise and daring juxtapositions of shape and intense color in miniatures, including the “Court of Jamshid.” When Jamshid ruled, it is told that, “The world submitted to him, quarrels were laid to rest.” He is credited with establishing the Iranian celebration of Now-ruz, a festive celebration of spring even marked by US presidents with special broadcasts to Iran. It is also said that in the reign of Jamshid, “Men knew nothing of sorrow and evil…and the land was filled with music.” The celebration of Now-ruz as well as music was antithetical to the prevailing religion in Iran. In fact, the current government tried to ban Now-ruz.

In another miniature the tyrant Zahhak, who ruled for a thousand years, is resplendent in red with green sleeves on a low throne embellished with floral design. Behind him are mauve rocky hills. It is said during his reign the wise had to conceal themselves, which is much the same sort of history recounted in the “I Ching.”

One thing to note is that these miniatures were pages in books and were not imagined by their creators as hanging on a wall. Looking at them it is best to imagine holding them in your hands.
The spaces around the figures in the miniatures are often lyrically imagined gardens created in hues of passion. The name “Firdawsi” is a penname, as the word actually means paradise—and paradise in Persia is a garden. Through April 17th, 2011 at the Sackler Gallery. [gallery ids="102550,102551" nav="thumbs"]

Paradise and Modernism: Gauguin at the National Gallery

Paul Gauguin fills part of two floors of the East Wing of the National Gallery with some spectacular works that changed the form and focus of art (“Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” at the National Gallery through June 5). Gauguin’s color greatly influenced the 20th century. Gauguin could use color in an almost empirical way, and it was unlike anything in earlier European art. He was also a born illustrator, and when he joined those talents to his quest for a paradise unfettered by modern civilization, his work broke into a powerful dreamscape, showcased in paintings such as “The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch.”

It was Gauguin’s appreciation of Tahitian art, whose influence he incorporated into his own work, which led directly to Picasso’s appreciation of African art. Accordingly, Picasso had something of a revelation when he saw Gauguin’s phallic sculpture that was meant for his tombstone. That would jump directly into Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” It would also lead in turn to the art of Brancusi, as well as Modigliani’s marvelous sculpture. The paintings exhibited in Gauguin’s work, with its sparing use of paint and illustrative mode, brings into question whether this master did not also influence Picasso’s blue and rose period.

Born in Paris, Gauguin came from a complex parentage, with his mother being partly Peruvian as well as the daughter of an early feminist. Gauguin’s early childhood was spent partly in Peru, which would undoubtedly influence his quest for a pre-European idyll only fulfilled in his last years when he lived in Tahiti. Gauguin was not a paradigm of the good or kind artist. He abandoned his family in Copenhagen along with his job as a stockbroker in order to paint. The modern sleuthing of recent scholars also suggests that Gauguin, an expert fencer, may well have sliced off van Gogh’s ear.

Earlier than van Gogh, in 1919 Gauguin entered the mythology of literature with Somerset Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence.” It later became a movie starring George Sanders. In most of Gauguin’s self-portraits he portrays himself as an earnest, almost ordinary looking man, with the exception of the incredible specimen from the Chester Dale collection in the National Gallery. This very arch and slightly demonic self-portrait is an indelible image that disturbs with its magnetic color and through the use of a snake as a kind of cigarette. Over Gauguin’s own head he painted a halo. Two dangling apples imply a male Eve, and perhaps he is being true to his grandmother, taking original sin onto man.

Another arresting portrait is of Jacob Meyer de Haan, sliced as it is by a shelf with two books. One of the books is “Paradise Lost” by Milton. This is the subject of Gauguin’s greatest works, including “Contes Barbares.” De Haan is placed crouching to the side of two young beauties in the tropics.

Dominating the later galleries of the show is the vision of paradise Gauguin encountered in Tahiti. Earlier there are the peasants he depicted in Brittany with masterpieces such as “The Yellow Christ” and “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.” There may be no greater or more timely 19th century paintings with Biblical subject matter.

Though it is the startling image of “The Loss of Virginity” that almost steals the show. A fox hugs the shoulder of a prone nude girl. Here Gauguin dives deep, going further and further into dream and myth.

“Gauguin: Maker of Myth is at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art through June 5, 2011.

“20 Years, 20 Artists” at The Ralls Collection

It is difficult to encapsulate the significance of The Ralls Collection to Washington’s artistic community, much in the same way it is hard to grasp the broad archive of substantial artwork that has passed through the gallery since its opening 20 years ago.

In both cases, the amount accomplished and the merit achieved by owner and founder Marsha Ralls dwarfs any singular summation or exhibition. But the work present at The Ralls Collection’s 20th Anniversary Exhibition, “20 Years, 20 Artists” (March 18 – May 28), does not try to weave any sort of narrative or biography. With this show, Ralls has done what she has consistently done for nearly a quarter century: put together a remarkable exhibition of beautiful contemporary artwork with a clear vision and impeccable taste.

A Texas native, Ralls began her career in the arts as an apprentice to American master painter Robert Rauschenberg. After doing consultation and advising work for several major galleries and auction houses, including Sotheby’s Auction House in New York, she founded The Ralls Collection Inc. in 1988 and opened the doors to the corresponding gallery in Georgetown in 1991. Since then, she has been sharing her expertise with the Washington arts community, working within the city and internationally to forward the development, education and appreciation of the arts.

Her more recent accomplishments and contributions include a longstanding seat on the DC Arts & Humanities Commission Board, having been appointed by Anthony Williams in 2004, as well as traveling to the UAE and Saudi Arabia to provide advisory services, looking to collaborate with local leaders on arts initiatives and fostering economic development through the arts.

But inside the doors of The Ralls Collection, you wouldn’t need to know any of this. All that you need to know is hanging on the walls, proving to you that there are still galleries showcasing innovative and relevant artwork in Washington. Like all of Ralls’ other shows, “20 Years, 20 Artists” is focused absolutely on the art and the artists. “We have such close, successful relationships,” she says of the artists she represents, “and I wanted to celebrate them, their art and their contribution to the Ralls Collection.”

Many of the artists Ralls chose for the exhibition have been with the gallery since its beginning, Melinda Stickney and Caio Fonseca among them. Stickney’s “Bliss + Grief,” a modest-size canvas that plays out like a whimsical, brutal family history, utilizes a classical sense of color and composition to realize a deeply textured canvas. Her empirical use of shadow within her weightless, abstract shapes recalls a hyperbolic theatricality and experimentation that is almost literary.

Fonseca’s “Pietrasanta Painting CO6.54” is a huge, encapsulating black canvas, a sort of adumbrated landscape littered with sharp flecks of white that dance around the dark field like a vague melody. A pastoral blueprint that might be reminiscent of Pietrasanta, Italy, where the artist lives and works, the viewer feels immediately comfortable in front of the canvas, but its mystery lingers long after the initial viewing.

Among a select few artists new to the gallery, DC painter John Blee’s “Orchard Mist” serves as a most remarkable centerpiece. The first painting one sees upon entering the gallery, it is a luscious environment of color, which warms you from within like dawn’s first light. Blee’s color is full of meaning, as significant to his searching canvases as with the impressionists, who used their paint to define light, time and atmosphere. Blee has been heavily influenced by poetry, notably the work of Rilke. “It is Rilke’s insistence on putting the impossible at the center of the quest that stays with me every day,” he says.

This influence is clear in his work. Like the garden paintings of Pierre Bonnard, Blee’s paintings are elegant and contemplative, effortlessly composed, intricate and expansive. Blee’s work will be exhibited in a solo show at The Ralls Collection this coming fall, which this paper greatly anticipates. Keep an eye out for it in the coming months. It is not a show you want to miss.

Two canvases by David Richardson, whose show at The Ralls Collection ran through last month and garnered tremendous national attention, hang in the gallery for the exhibition, including a new piece commissioned for the show. With Richardson’s planes of bold colors and textures, his work recalls a landscape both foreign and familiar, contained yet effusive.

Ralls has assembled another monumental exhibition, significant to the local community and the artistic community at large. Masters like Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra hang next to renowned local and international painters, bridging an array of styles and influence into a cohesive and relevant body of works. It is only March, but this exhibition will surely go down as one of the major arts events of 2011.

“20 Years, 20 Artists” will be on view at The Ralls Collection through May 28. For more information visit RallsCollection.com

Nam June Paik and Lewis Baltz at the NGA

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 NGA.gov/Exhibitions.

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 www.ParishGallery.com. [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 [CrossMacKenzie.com](http://www.crossmackenzie.com/).

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 CrossMackenzie.com or email Becca@CrossMackenzie.com. [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"]