Sunday, October 28, 2007

Impressionists By The Sea: The Phillips Collection

More to come.

Going West - Quilts & Community @ The Renwick Gallery

We weren’t the only ones who could not (even with begging and pleading) gain admission to the Corcoran’s exhibits on a late Saturday afternoon, so if you are headed for the Leibovitz/Adams shows, get there early in the day! All wasn’t lost … the Renwick is a few short walking blocks away and we comfortably strolled through the Going West exhibit without nary an elbow bumping. The Renwick Gallery is a fine, first rate museum in its own right; it houses a dynamic collection of examples of American contemporary craft, art, and design spanning the 19th - 21st centuries.

Featured in the Going West exhibit are about 50 rare quilts from the first quarter of the 19th century to the 1930s. If you can imagine embarking on the journey out west, and having to bring along only a few cherished keepsakes, then your appreciation for the sentimentality of these items will be right on key. Or better yet, imagine the life of a woman newly established in her prairie home, and her need to create items not available at the local Target.

Necessity IS the mother of invention, and the Going West quilts prove that there was a deep focus on recording family history, using available objects (see the quilt made out of neckties), the irrefutable strength of the creative spirit, and the desire to commemorate important anniversaries in the lives of community members. It is interesting to consider how these quilts might have represented efforts in journaling or even fundraising. And from a crafts perspective, well they are just inspiring.

If you plan to visit the gorgeously detailed works, we would like to suggest a method of viewing. To really appreciate the work, materials, and time invested in craftsmanship, the trick is to stand as close to the quilt as the museum curators will allow. Isolate a six inch square, or a series of six inch squares, to really see the art embedded in the various cloths and stitches. This is particularly illuminating with the use of velvet cloth against other materials - one can see how the shimmer impacts the commonality of cotton cloth for example.

A quilt is a collage, a composite whole of smaller unrelated parts. And although the whole can be quite stunning, the devil is in the detail with a careful examination of the pieces. If you consider assemblage, construction, color selection, and composition, it will help to transport you back to the Wild West. Quilts from this exhibition are a fine example of a continuum along the tradition of useful textiles. They provide insight to the essential role that quilts and the making of quilts played in the lives of women on the frontier and they are (in my mind) a testament to feminism even, in their own sort-of-quasi-political-way.

The Going West exhibit runs to Jan 21, 2008. The Renwick Gallery is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and is located on 17th Street & Pennsylvania Ave, NW. Admission is free. Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., closed December 25. Tours and General Info: 202-633-8550. Be sure to check the calendar, as the Renwick hosts a series of crafts demonstrations, lectures, receptions, and musical performances in its mission to collect and preserve the finest in American crafts.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Annie Leibovitz: A Year Ago

In honor of Annie Leibovitz's A Photographer's Life Exhibition at the Corcoran, we are re-posting our story from last year.

The good folks over at Politics and Prose Bookstore in northwest DC ( had us packed in like sweltering sardines on October 16, 2006. The standing room only crowd gathered for one of the store’s most exciting author events ever. You never knew so many people could fit into such a cramped space without the fire department rushing in, but none of us cared very much. We were all there (some of us up to three hours early) to stake out our own personal square footage just to see, hear, and be in the same room as American born celebrity photographer and portrait artist Annie Leibovitz. A popular culturist and a modernist, Ms. Leibovitz (born Anna-Lou), was honored in 1991 with a major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Her work has received major acclaim and criticism centering around her concentration on celebrities, a practice she's continued since her early success with Rolling Stone Magazine. Ms. Leibovitz read for about a half an hour from her new, highly praised retrospective entitled, “A Photographer’s Life.” (Available through The retrospective is a collection of work from 1990 – 2005. It is inspired in part, due to the death of Annie’s long time companion, Susan Sontag, and the death of Leibovitz’s father a mere few weeks following. Both black and white and color images span personality novelties of the rich and famous to more personal and intimate relational works on the author’s family. Of particular note is a photograph of Ms. Leibovitz’s mother in her late seventies, one the photographer loves because of its authenticity and its absence of pretension. Ms. Leibovitz appeared unpretentiously to be in a mixed state of joy over her young children (she gave birth to her first daughter at the age of 51 and was 8 ½ months pregnant during September 11, 2001), while at the same time also fighting the clutches of resigned and unrelenting grieving. She bares her soul and describes her experience as being not primarily that of a photographer, but rather one as an observer of life. Most interesting were her perspectives on the effect of engaging a subject in conversation prior to taking a photo. Leibovitz says no matter what you say to a person, it changes their face, changes their emotion, and changes the expression in the eyes. This is one of the reasons she most prefers unstaged and unposed photography. She’s searching for who the person is – what’s their statement. When asked by aspiring photographers what the key to a successful life in photography is, she quips, “Stay close to home.” So it seems the retrospective may be asking – who, where and what is home – does the definition of home change as people die – is home within – and can you find your home through Leibovitz’s expression and years of work?

suzanne stryk - u.s. botanic gardens

Suzanne Stryk is showing some of her more careful "Green Evolution" illustration at the U.S. Botanic Gardens thru November 11, 2007. Highlighted is the exhibition of personal sketch journals containing extremely intricate pen & ink works. I always marvel when artists turn over their journals, to me there is nothing more that points to the core of thought and process.

The Botanic show also features Stryk's drawings (her paintings are somewhat less represented) and is a beautiful and thoughtful corridor walk OUT of the gardens. The lovely tea-washed effect in some of the works lends to a very earthy feel. I saw several people pausing and reflecting on the WORK, the hours, the intentful effort, and the complexities involved in botantical illustration.

Stryk, in her mid-fifties, is originally from Chicago and has shown at several solo and group shows. She enjoys representation in some pointed and impressive private and corporate collections (Bank of America) and many of her works have appeared in esteemed publications (Orion). Although you could walk through the show during your thirty minute lunch "hour" and have done it justice, you're certain to leave with a new found appreciation for nature's grace.

What I really love though, is Stryk seems to glaringly prove as example one, that you DO NOT need to go to big city art school to make it big in the big city! Here she is at the freaking SMITHSONIAN in Washington DC where you can throw a rock to NGA and the Corcoran - and her MFA in Painting was accomplished at East Tennessee State University with a BA in Art History at Northern Illinois University! Gotta love a gal with talent. Gotta love a gal with gusto.