In case I’m never gracious enough to remember to say it again, I would like to take this moment to tell you that I’m just enamored to be living in my city that is so uber-laden with cultural institutions, and non-institutionalized culture too. That’s even if I am stuck for the moment way out in formerly Confederate suburbs.
Without even trying to go back and replace it with a real word, I’d also like to confess that I’m aware that “uber-laden” sounds like something fat old men wear when they want to polka dance.
Yesterday I went down to Union Station to meet a friend who had a few hours in DC in between trains from elsewhere to elsewhere.
Because I don’t have anything else to do all day, I went in to town early. No… really, I don’t.
I wandered in to the National Gallery of Art. And here’s what’s cool about DC: the National Gallery is FREE! Take that Met! You just walk right in like it’s your own back yard. (Unless you’re carrying a bag, that is. Then, guys in uniforms will search it.)
So, when you enter the East Building, off to the corner, tucked between the door and the Andy Goldsworthy rocks, are a few rooms dedicated to “Small French Paintings“. Seeing that I just don’t have the constitution to take on the entire National Gallery in a day, I usually beeline among select bits and pieces. And, honestly, “small”, “French”, and “paintings”? I’d never been in there because I expected a bunch of things like what you’ll see if you click on the link. A handful of less ambitious Fragonards, maybe…
Those galleries were awesome though. They had up a handful of early paintings by Bonnard that were well structured, and fairly normal. (huh?) I’d never seen early Bonnards. It warmed my heart to see evidence that he wasn’t just born the greatest genius of color that the Western world may have ever seen. The paintings he did when he was younger show the beginnings of things that would later become such complex and astounding interactions of color. The early paintings are a testament to work, and I enjoyed that.
The same room also had several early Vuillards that came across as something that Morandi might have been looking back to. Very nice indeed.
Now, recently, I’ve felt turned off by the pretension and discursiveness in a good deal of post-war and post-post-war art. Of late I’ve had trouble reconciling that a field so disparaging of decoration would embrace an Ellsworth Kelly installation like the one at the National Gallery. The mental trickery that explains it and makes it seem “smart” has fallen flat with me.
So, after the little French paintings, I went straight to the Medieval Galleries. Now let it be known that I love medieval painting. It all started when I spent some time in the Romanesque galleries at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, back in the day. At the National Gallery (of America) yesterday, my take on the best of it was the Italian Byzantine Painting and two works by the Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes (a.k.a. the Borgo Crucifix Master). In all cases I am in consort with those who consider medieval art as outside of the Western tradition − in the way that it clashes with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but that fits so well into pluralist 20th-21st century art.
For one, I find something compelling in pre-proto-Renaissance attitudes toward the role of craft in painting. I get the sense that the workshops were turning these things out as fast as they could land contracts to make them. It’s awesome. There is a pursuit of a kind of perfection very different than those that fit easily into contemporary painting. In medieval art, there is a way of doing things, the way of doing things. Abbreviations are systematized, but corners are never cut. Rather than set out to paint something that looks just like a real robe, medieval painters set out to create something that their audience would know is supposed mean “robe”. The Mourning Madonna never even considers capturing the “essence” of sadness (yuck, Plato…) so much as portray a face that looks enough like a sad woman so that you’ll know she is sad. I’m endlessly intrigued by how medieval painters created signifiers by blending visual similarity and widely understood symbolism. And, I think that those approaches have close parallels in contemporary vernacular uses of images and objects − in advertising, kitsch, souvenirs, in mantle displays, scrapbooks, and even god-awful shadow boxes.
After about the year 1400 though, it’s just downhill. Sure, sometimes a totally screwed up stab at linear perspective will create an interesting spatial tension. But, with or without cute little naked cherubs, once things start heading toward Classicism and representation, y’all can have you’re ninja turtle names. And, yeah, I do really harbor an ugly disdain for Platonic philosophy.
So, I went up to Union Station, had coffee, a sandwich… met with friend… bought an xmas gift for 19.95$ and didn’t even have to pay shipping & handling…
Then, speaking of medieval themes and such, I walked up to Irvine Contemporary to see the Al Farrow sculptures I mentioned the other day. They were a little bit dingier than they appear in the photos. It’s for the good though – they still come across as finely crafted, labored, and polished. The bit of dinge (from the welding) lends well to the overall darkness.
I’ll also add that work by Shephard Fairey was a little better than I had expected. That’s to say that they have a material quality that is probably only appreciable in-person. They’re still pretty dumb though. On the other hand, they are a nice testament to the value of self-confidence far and above limiting your audience by, you know, using stuff like complex thought. Then, to round out the show, the back room with “posters” for the Manifesto for a People’s Republic of Antartica, or whatever, is just about the dumbest, least ambitious thing I’ve seen in that pretentious of a gallery in a very long time. It’s an insult to Al Farrow to lump them into the same show.