Perambulating the Bounds

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

SAAM

I finally got to the newly renovated and remodeled Smithsonian American Art Museum (aka the National Collection of Fine Arts) and the National Portrait Gallery. The building looks great, with lots of the old Patent Office’s original features. Details like the visible conservation labs are a great touch. Having grown up in the DC area, it was nice to see things I remember as a kid like the marble statue of Dying Tecumseh (an American take on the Greco-Roman Dying Gaul), or James Hampton’s tin foil-covered garage-built altar.

One of the temporary exhibits is an exhaustive (but not too large) show on Joseph Cornell that includes plenty of the boxes (many from the Lehrman Art Trust), but also less familiar things like portfolios of collages and materials he put together around specific personalities, films he mostly collaborated with other artists on, and stuff collected from his apartment, labeled boxes and envelopes filled with his raw material like cork balls, clay bubble pipes, magazine clippings, and some of his books and the records he listened to. I always enjoyed the boxes in isolation, as small idealized spaces, but this show gives a way to see them with much more context and connected to an artistic milieu.

There’s also work by William Christenberry that shows everything he does – color photos, sculptures, paintings, drawings. In a lot of cases he will take one vernacular building form and show it in a photo, a sculpture and a painting. The photos still work best for me, but there’s value in seeing the form expressed each of the three ways.

My favorite aspect of the show was seeing photographs together that he took of the same buildings and scenes over time. There’s a barbeque joint in Greensboro that undergoes a name change, subtle architectural changes, then starts to decay and ends up an empty lot. Or the Klan bar in one photo that has been replaced by another business in another. And two shots of the same pear tree, one in winter, one in summer loaded with fruit. An abandoned palmist’s shop that gets overtaken by kudzu, then by other vegetation, some of which finally gets cleared away. There’s also a series of photos of a green warehouse that doesn’t change that much over time, obviously still in use.

The photos show all sorts of time and change. Social time, seasonal time, environmental time. There’s decay, cyclicality, and even progress (the Klan watering hole replaced by something more benign).

Tomorrow I may write about one or a couple of the pieces in a portraiture contest at the museum. We'll see.

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