You have to respect a Canadian artist ballsy enough to construct a skating rink in her first solo museum show. Mia Feuer’s “Rink,” which occupies the Corcoran’s rotunda for the next four months, is a fully functioning, ominously black oval surrounded by seemingly impenetrable black walls, and above it is “An Unkindness,” a looming sculptural installation that resembles a flock of nightmarish birds poised to attack. You can, if you wish, put on the skates assembled at one side of the room, enter the rink, and look at the work from underneath in the state of contemplation that Feuer believes is inherent when you’re the sole skater in a deserted landscape.
“Rink” could come across as cutesy or attention-seeking, but it does the opposite—there’s something about the opaque black surface that seems designed to repel. The rink is made from a thick black polymer rather than from ice, so it’s as alien to the cheery outdoor skating spaces of the holiday season as charcoal is to snow. The plastic has a dull quality that declines to reflect the magnificent atrocity suspended above it, and the lights mounted from the ceiling cast ghastly avian shadows all around the room. If Darren Aronofsky ever made a figure-skating sequel to Black Swan, chances are it would look a lot like this.
Feuer is the first Washington-based artist to be featured in the Corcoran’s contemporary NOW series—she lives and works at a studio in Brookland and teaches at George Mason—but she was raised in Winnipeg, and her Canadian heritage is one of the focal points of the show. “An Unkindness” explores both the physical and figurative intersections between natural landscapes and humankind, specifically the ways in which the oil industry leaves vast swaths of the world barren and uninhabitable. Feuer has traveled to tar sands and oil sites in Canada, Norway, and the Arctic Circle, exploring the production process and the remains of our insatiable thirst for oil—a substance she acknowledges is essential to her craft as an artist.
So much of Vincent van Gogh’s life has been mythologized—his failure to sell more than one painting during his lifetime, his death at 37 from a gunshot wound, his infamous ear—that his work can get overlooked. As Phillips Collection curator Eliza Rathbone puts it, “He doesn’t have the place he has in art history simply because of the drama.”
“Van Gogh Repetitions”—opening October 12 at the Phillips—aims to explore the methodical way he made his paintings. While any van Gogh show is a challenge to produce because of his notoriety, this one is particularly ambitious in the way it compares similar paintings of the same subject. A portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin from the Art Institute of Chicago hangs next to an image of her from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; other works are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Musée d’Orsay. “We wanted to bring together works that aren’t normally seen together,” Rathbone says. “We’re excited about what those juxtapositions have to tell us about what kind of artist he was.”
One of the exhibit’s starting points was a painting from the Cleveland Museum of Art called “The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy)”—done on a piece of printed fabric used to make clothes because van Gogh wanted to quickly capture a scene he saw. Later, he painted a version on canvas, which is now in the permanent collection at the Phillips. “The second version reveals a sophisticated, deliberate, planned execution,” Rathbone says. “We wanted people to get to know both sides of his genius.”
With more than 30 paintings, the show offers a focused look at van Gogh’s process as well as his remarkable ability to produce a number of paintings in a short time. (He once made 70 in 70 days.) Says Rathbone: “You can visit these paintings if you travel all over the world, but it’s not the same as seeing them side by side. There will be revelations even for those of us who’ve been working on them for so long.”
“Van Gogh Repetitions”, October 12 through January 26 at the Phillips Collection. $12. Tickets available at phillipscollection.org.
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
First, a note: All Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery of Art are currently
closed because of the government shutdown. We’re listing shows at those museums at
the end of the Museum Exhibitions section in the hope that things might return to
normal next week, and we’ll update this post if and when they do.
National Museum of Women in the Arts (OPEN)
“Wanderer: Travel Prints by Ellen Day Hale” presents a number of etchings by the American painter and printmaker, inspired by her travels around the world. October 4 through January 5; $12. Mention the ArtForAll promotion to get 20 percent off admission through October 6.
National Geographic Museum (OPEN)
“Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment” runs October 10 through March 9, and reveals work by 11 of National Geographic’s intrepid female photographers. $11. The museum is offering free admission for federal employees through the government shutdown.
Phillips Collection (OPEN)
“Van Gogh Repetitions”—opening October 12—aims to explore the methodical way the impossibly famous artist made his paintings, and the ways in which he returned to the same subjects over and over again. Through January 26; $12. The Phillips is offering buy one, get one free on tickets for federal employees through the government shutdown (plus 50 percent off coffee).
Kreeger Museum (OPEN)
“Mindy Weisel: Not Neutral” showcases three collections by the German-born artist, who splits her time between Jerusalem and Washington. Included are “Paintings of the Holocaust” and “Survival of Beauty,” which explore Weisel’s heritage as a descendant of people who died in the Holocaust, and “After Tohuku,” based on Weisel’s humanitarian work following the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Through December 28; $10.
Corcoran Gallery of Art (OPEN)
“American Journeys: Visions of Place,” which opened last month and runs through next September, reveals a new installation of the museum’s pre-1945 American paintings and sculpture. The museum is offering buy on, get one free on admission through the duration of the shutdown. $10.
National Gallery of Art
“Yes, No, Maybe: Artists Working at Crown Point Press” looks at the history of the San Francisco printmaking studio named in the show’s title, with 125 prints and proofs made between 1972 and 2010 by artists such as Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, and Richard Diebenkorn. September 1 through January 5.
“Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial” commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Wagner, in which the African-American 54th Massachusetts Regiment led attempts to breach the South Carolina Confederate stronghold. The exhibit showcases a patinated plaster sculpture of Saint-Gaudens’s memorial plus images of the soldiers who fought for the Union. September 15 through January 20.
“American Journeys: Visions of Place” opens September 21, and reveals a new installation of the museum’s pre-1945 American paintings and sculpture. Through September 21, 2014.
Freer Gallery of Art
“Off the Beaten Path: Early Works by James McNeill Whistler” reveals work made by the 24-year-old artist while he was traveling in Europe. September 28 through September 28, 2014.
“Andy Warhol: Silver Clouds” comes from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Artisphere’s Terrace Gallery is the site of 150 floating silver helium balloons, created for Warhol in 1964 by scientist Billy Klüver and a familiar presence at Warhol’s Factory in New York. September 12 through October 20.
Also opening at Artisphere to coincide with the show is “Sergio Albiac: Three Generative Video Portraits,” revealing the artist’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth II, as well as a new, Artisphere-commissioned portrait of Michelle Obama.
“Mindy Weisel: Not Neutral” showcases three collections by the German-born artist, who splits her time between Jerusalem and Washington. Included are “Paintings of the Holocaust” and “Survival of Beauty,” which explore Weisel’s heritage as a descendant of people who died in the Holocaust, and “After Tohuku,” based on Weisel’s humanitarian work following the 2011 tsunami in Japan. September 3 through December 28.
Smithsonian Museum of American Art
“Landscapes in Passing: Photographs by Steve Fitch, Robbert Flick, and Elaine Mayes” encompasses almost 50 images of the American landscape by three influential photographers working in the 1970s and ’80s. Fitch took pictures of roadsides for his “Diesels and Dinosaurs” series, Flick walked through the streets of Los Angeles photographing neighborhoods, and Mayes captured images from her car window. July 26 through January 20.
National Museum of American History
“Little Golden Books” looks at the much-loved children’s series, which was launched in 1942 with titles such as The Little Red Hen and Mother Goose. The exhibit explores how the series made books more accessible and affordable for young readers and includes artists’ proofs from early editions. Through January 5.
The Phillips marks the centennial of the first American show of modern art in “History in the Making: 100 Years After the Armory Show.” The exhibit comprises works from the museum’s collection by artists—including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso—featured in the 1913 Armory Show, which was considered scandalous when it debuted in New York City. August 1 through January 5.
“Deferral,” a site-specific performance-art installation by Mary Coble, takes place August 7 through 10. Read more about it in our earlier post.
Library of Congress
“A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington” marks five decades since Martin Luther King Jr. led his historic rally for civil rights on the Mall. The exhibit, which opens exactly 50 years to the day after the 1963 march, includes 42 black-and-white photographs taken that day. August 28 through February 28.
For four days starting August 7, artist Mary Coble will protest the FDA’s ban on blood donations from gay men in “Deferral,” the latest performance art installation in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s contemporary NOW series. Coble and a handful of gay male collaborators will work inside a makeshift anatomical theater crafted from hospital curtains inside the Corcoran’s atrium, covering their space with words and images. While Coble will use her own blood as a medium, her team will use red thread to draw awareness to the legitimacy of their own bodily fluids.
There’s a lengthy history of using blood and other bodily fluids in art, from Marc Quinn’s “Self” (a sculpture of Quinn’s head made from 4.5 liters of his blood) to musician Pete Doherty’s blood drawings, in which he uses his own “arterial splatter” technique. In 2005, Coble had the names of 436 LGBT individuals who were killed in hate crimes tattooed on her body without ink in a marathon 12-hour performance art installation at what was then Conner Contemporary. She pressed a sheet of paper against each name after it had been completed, making a blood painting for each one.
In Ellen Harvey’s Washington, tourists flock to the city trying to make sense of its landmarks. But Harvey’s visitors are from another planet, exploring a world that’s been devoid of humans for thousands of years. In “The Alien’s Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C.”—July 3 through October 6 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art—the British-born Brooklyn artist explores notions of architecture, heritage, and identity by showing how aliens might interpret the neoclassical buildings here and around the world.
Harvey, a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School, has long been interested in how art is defined—painting miniature landscapes illegally on buildings in her “New York Beautification Project” and offering people free portraits in return for their evaluation of her work at the 2008 Whitney Biennial. The idea for “The Alien’s Guide” was sparked in part by the Corcoran’s neoclassical building as well as the act of museum-going itself. “Institutions always have this desire to impose meaning on the chaos of reality,” Harvey says. “We look back to the classical architecture of the Greek and Roman eras, and it’s such a foreign society to us—we impose our own ideas upon it. I thought it would be fun to discuss assumptions of hierarchy, power, and democracy by having aliens come to earth and come up with the wrong end of the stick on everything.”
NEW MUSEUM SHOWS
“Ellen Harvey: The Alien’s Guide to the Ruins of Washington DC” is now on display, imagining Washington from an outsider’s perspective long after mankind has passed on. Read our review of the show. Through October 6.
“Intersections: Bernard Hildebrandt, A Conjugation of Verb” is a video installation riffing on El Greco’s “The Repentant St. Peter.” Through September 22.
“A World of Bonds: Frederick Sommer’s Photography and Friendships” continues at the National Gallery, showcasing work by Sommer as well as Man Ray, Edward Weston, and others. Through August 4.
Indian artist Rina Banerjee presents a new site-specific installation at the Sackler—the first in the museum’s new contemporary art series. “A World Lost” is inspired by Asian waterways and incorporates items such as glass bottles, shells, and plastic. July 13 through June, 2014.
Three exhibits open simultaneously: “High Art,” which showcases 50 works about flight acquired by the museum during the past decade; “Searching for Goldilocks,” a three-dimensional glass sculpture engraved with images from the Kepler space laboratory’s telescope; and “Suited for Space,” photography capturing the apparatus of space travel. July 26 through January 14.
Destroying Washington in the service of art is a device that seems irresistible to filmmakers, never more so than in 2013, when not one but two lackluster movies with budgets big enough to wipe out the Corcoran’s entire deficit have been released. The fact that Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are so spookily similar tells us rather a lot about audiences today: 1) They hate Washington. 2) They love Washington in a way that makes its immolation both haunting and oddly cathartic. And 3) there’s hardly anything more visually striking than classical architecture in ruins. Just look at Rome, or Detroit.
“The Alien’s Guide to the Ruins of Washington DC”—the newest work by British-born, Brooklyn-based artist Ellen Harvey and the latest in the Corcoran’s contemporary NOW series—doesn’t destroy Washington so much as revel in the magnificence of its desolation, but title aside, it’s much less concerned with Washington specifically than it is with the architecture of power in general. Harvey’s Washington exists in an imaginary future when humans have long since snuffed it. And yet the inevitable tourists remain, this time in the form of aliens who flock to earth in droves to try to understand the mysterious species that lived there, and why it was so compelled to erect pillars, porticos, columns, and colonnades everywhere it settled.
Harvey describes classical architecture as a “virus,” and nowhere is its proliferation more blatant than upstairs in one of the Corcoran’s galleries, where she’s assembled between 3,000 and 5,000 postcards of buildings around the world and displayed them all on three vast walls, drawing links between them with hieroglyphic-esque symbols. A collection of cards depicting the Parthenon in Athens, for example, hangs next to postcards of the Parthenon in Nashville, a full-scale replica of the Greek version constructed in 1897. There are ubiquitous domed state capitols and memorials and museums and palaces and theaters and banks and basilicas, classified in a simplistic but meaningful fashion (with lines and squiggles linking them together), and the scale of it all is breathtaking.
Harvey is clearly baffled, in a good-natured way, by the cross-cultural dominance of a single architectural form and its resilience over several thousand years of civilization. Her aliens are baffled, too, and in an attempt to understand the “lost pillar-builders of Earth” they misattribute motivations to humankind, which are printed on the Corcoran’s walls in space-age-y text. Here, we can learn that our beliefs were grounded in “egalitarianism, collaboration, and flirting,” and that our many, many cities on the water were constructed as part of an ornate mating ritual involving swimming upstream. Befuddled by the different sizes of Earth’s many ruins (imagine the DC War Memorial next to the US Capitol), the aliens have also deduced that humans come in three sizes, a bit like socks.
Faith Ringgold (left) is widely considered one of the most important African-American artists of the 20th century, but many critics believe her work has never received the acclaim it deserves. While she’s best known for her story quilts from the 1970s and ’80s, an exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s,” looks at her earlier work and the activism underpinning it.
The show—June 21 through November 10—comprises 45 pieces from two series made in the 1960s: “American People,” in which Ringgold fused Picasso’s post-Cubist style with traditional African influences, producing works that showed the paradoxes of integration, and “Black Light,” in which she explored notions of color by abandoning white paint. “It was a vibrant period—there was a lot of writing, talking about expressing the experience of African-American people,” Ringgold says. “I felt, as I still feel, that artists have the job of documenting their times.”
“American People” was considered scandalous for its depictions of race. One painting, “Die,” plays on Picasso’s “Guernica” by imagining a gory street riot. “A lot of people were horrified,” she says. “They didn’t feel it was appropriate to say anything about America that wasn’t positive.” But she was intent on trying to show what it was like to live as an African-American: “I wanted people to feel as though they were facing these people, experiencing part of the struggle. I was trying to give them the experience I had had all my life.”
Now 82 and living in New Jersey, Ringgold runs a foundation, Anyone Can Fly, that teaches children about art history. She continues to campaign for museums to showcase work by women and African-Americans. “Persevere, look, see, feel, and create, and we will know your experience—leave it behind for us in a way that no one else can,” she says. “They could leave me out, but they couldn’t stop me from painting those pictures.”
“American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s,” June 21 through Nov. 10 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. $10. For more information, visit the museum’s website.
This article appears in the June 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.