Editors' pick

Inside the Underworld: Beetle Magic

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Editorial Review

Museum keeps things fresh this fall
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 23, 2012

Most major museums deliver exactly what we expect, from one visit to the next. The National Gallery of Art? The Calder mobile. The Phillips Collection? Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”

With tightly focused missions and the strong brand identification that comes from carefully cultivated permanent collections, such museums can’t, or at least don’t, reinvent themselves very often.

The American University Museum, on the other hand, likes to keep its audience on its toes.

With a lively fleet and flexible exhibition program that focuses equal attention on local, national and international art -- and a healthy respect for the past and the present -- the museum delivers only one thing with great consistency: surprise. Recent shows have included a survey of contemporary female ceramicists from Japan, a spotlight on Spanish design and furniture and a presentation of new work by Washington artist Sam Gilliam.

The current shows, five of which opened earlier this month, are prime examples of why the museum, though nowhere near the Mall, is one of the city’s treasures.

The first thing you’ll notice is a wall of giant bugs.

That’s longtime Washington sculptor Joan Danziger’s “Inside the Underworld: Beetle Magic,” an installation of several dozen mixed-media renderings of beetles that makes inspired -- if slightly creepy-crawly -- use of the building’s soaring walls. The building itself, whose curving walls and dynamic sculptural forms have presented art-hanging challenges in the past, has never been better used.

Also stellar: the black-and-white photography of Ivan Pinkava, which explores the idea of impermanence and mortality. “Remains, 1997-2010,” covering the Czech artist’s expansive body of work, is at once surreal, poetic and deeply, relatably humane. The 51-year-old Pinkava is not yet well known here, but certainly should be.

The Color of Time” also looks at temporality, but through a different lens. Shown in a darkened gallery that has been furnished to look like a living room (complete with couch and floor lamp), the nine-minute video is a collaboration between painter and sculptor Carol Brown Goldberg and filmmaker Anthony Szulc.

On one level, it’s a guided tour through the Baltimore-bred, D.C-based Goldberg’s career. Images of her op-art-like abstractions, which draw inspiration from, among other things, the string theory of physics, form the core of the video. But Szulc also weaves in warm and fuzzy home movies from her childhood, which suggests that an artist’s biography contains just as many stories as the canvas does.

David Humphrey: Pets, a President and the Others” includes a decade’s worth of paintings by a New York artist who is sometimes called a pop surrealist. What that means is that you’ll find a painting of a horse and a snowman engaged in what could be construed as an amorous embrace. Don’t panic; it’s not shocking or even terribly erotic. It is, however, quite funny, as is much of the rest of Humphrey’s work, which incorporates recurring images of Dwight Eisenhower.

There’s a cartoonish, slightly smirking quality to the pictures, but that’s overwritten by Humphrey’s deliberately clumsy technique, which gives the show a naive charm. “Pets” isn’t the best thing on view, but it’s typical of the museum’s embrace of the arts, which is generous, a bit off-balance and never less than exciting.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, November 23, 2012

The freshest of the late fall harvest at the American University Museum is “Matthew Kenyon: Flash Crash.”

It’s not a major exhibition; there are only a handful of works on view. But those few pieces, which Kenyon created as part of SWAMP -- Studies of Work Atmosphere and Mass Production, a collaborative project with artist Douglas Easterly -- were among the most talked about at the museum’s opening reception earlier this month.

Kenyon’s pieces make ingenious, and visually startling, use of technology. “Notepad,” for instance, features stacks of what look like ordinary lined yellow notepaper, except that the lines are the names of Iraqi citizen casualties, micro-printed so they’re all but invisible to the naked eye. Visitors are encouraged to use the subversive paper -- which Kenyon claims to have smuggled into the supply closets of official Washington -- to write their congressional representatives, urging peace.

Two other works (“Supermajor” and “Puddle”) grapple with the politics of oil production. The first is a kind of fountain, using motor oil instead of water. Thanks to a carefully timed, and hidden, strobe light, a stream of oil appears frozen in mid-air, a column of golden droplets whose source is out of sight and out of mind.

At first glance, “Puddle” looks like a pool of dirty motor oil on a reflective metal surface. As you watch it, the oil seems to coagulate of its own volition, magically revealing the names of such SUV models as Expedition and Navigator. How does it work? The secret is a hidden magnet that activates metal shavings suspended in the oil. It’s clever, but it also offers pungent commentary on the First World’s oil addiction and modern-day imperialism­­­­.