A double dose for summer
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 29, 2012
The American University Museum has at least two things going for it. At 30,000 square feet, it’s just small and nimble enough to reinvent itself periodically, turning the entire building over to a new installation of art every few months. But with multiple, sometimes oddly shaped galleries distributed over three floors and an outdoor sculpture garden, it also feels big enough to offer visitors a meaty and meandering museum experience.
Two summer shows recently opened there: “The Constant Artist” and “Mexico: Expected/Unexpected.” Despite radically different content, they share a common theme: duality.
In “The Constant Artist,” it’s a before-and-after thing. The show is built around a tightly edited but representative sampling of early and late paintings by nine giants of the Washington art scene: Lisa Montag Brotman, Manon Cleary, Rebecca Davenport, Fred Folsom, Clark V. Fox, Sam Gilliam, Tom Green, Margarida Kendall Hull and Joseph White, bookending careers that span decades and, in most cases, are still going strong. (Cleary died late last year, and Green received a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- Lou Gehrig’s disease -- almost 12 months ago. This lends a poignancy to the show, but overall it feels celebratory, not solemn.) The paintings are supplemented by portraits of the artists from late and early in their careers by sharp-eyed photographer Paul Feinberg.
With the exception of well-known abstractionists Gilliam and Green, most of the artists are figurative virtuosos. A centerpiece of the show is Folsom’s nearly 20-foot-wide masterpiece “Last Call (at the Shepherd Park Go-Go Bar),” an altarpiece-size depiction of an infamous, long-closed Washington strip club. The painting is so big that it hasn’t been shown much since it was made in the mid-1980s. If you haven’t seen it, that one painting is worth the trip. In addition to portraits of club patrons and employees, it features likenesses of local celebrities and historical figures.
White, an abstract-turned-representational painter, is something of an anomaly for the sharp contrast between his older and newer work. Still, there’s a clarity of line and color to his 1969 “Rectangle 6” that feels so strongly connected to his paintings of revolving doors made just a few years ago that the works look as though they could have been painted days -- not decades -- apart.
The binary aspect of “Mexico: Expected/Unexpected” is articulated by the title of the show, which focuses on works owned by contemporary Mexican art collectors Isabel and Agustin Coppel. The expected part of the show includes such stalwarts as Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, whose black-and-white images chronicle everyday life. The show also touches on such predictably Mexican themes as drug-related violence, immigration and other politically charged issues. The unexpected part features work by a host of non-Mexican artists and deals with broader, more universal themes. American artist Pae White and Rivane Neuenschwander of Brazil each contribute gorgeous, poetic hanging sculptures. White’s is made of colored glass shards, Neuenschwander’s of empty garlic husks.
It’s a surprisingly stellar, world-class show, with an exceptionally strong showing by the exhibition’s many sculptors. Two site-specific wall “drawings” by Mexican artists -- one by Marco Rountree, created in the sculpture garden with adhesive tape, and one by Ricardo Rendon, made with drywall screws protruding from the atrium wall -- are not to be missed. Rountree and Rendon are not part of the Coppels’ collection; their work is included under the auspices of the Mexican Cultural Institute’s Artists in Residence program.
Taken together, the shows offer a multiplicity of reasons to visit the Katzen Art Center. But remember, the exhibits won’t be there long.
The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, June 29, 2012
One of many delightful surprises in “Mexico: Expected/Unexpected” at the American University Museum is the number of big-name artists whose works are on view.
One of the biggest names is Maurizio Cattelan. The subject of a recent 21-year retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, the Italian-born, New York-based artist contributes a life-size, taxidermied donkey sitting on the floor and staring at the wall like a toddler who has been given a timeout.
Cattelan has been making sculptures of taxidermied animals since 1995. But the way the donkey is sitting looks distinctly more human than asinine, perhaps embodying the artist’s legendary ambivalence about his own career. (The Guggenheim show marked the 52-year-old’s announcement that he was retiring.)
It might be hard for city folk to imagine a real donkey sitting that way. But as anyone who has worked with one will tell you, they actually do plunk down their rear ends like that -- but only if they really don’t want to go where you want them to.