Previews of Special Exhibitions

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006

'Gifts to the Nation'

During the renovation, the National Portrait Gallery's doors may have been closed, but its arms were wide open. Building plans didn't stop the museum from acquiring new works, several of which are on view in "Gifts to the Nation," including a portrait of mezzo soprano Denyce Graves by Pennsylvania artist Nelson Shanks.

GIFTS TO THE NATION Through April 1 at the National Portrait Gallery. First floor north.

William Christenberry

The idea of literal and figurative decomposition -- death, rust, rot and the perversion of moral values as manifested in the societally sanctioned terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan -- seems to fascinate William Christenberry, the Washington-based, Alabama-born artist whose varied output is the subject of this thoughtful survey. Featuring photographs, drawings, paintings, sculpture and found-object installation, "Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry" unites the artist's work under a single thematic umbrella: transformation.

Yet as with Christenberry's "Alabama Wall," which features 32 rusted metal signs advertising Tops Scotch Snuff, there's a flip side to the idea of material and spiritual disintegration. That's the patina of beauty that can sometimes accrue on even the ugliest things.

PASSING TIME: THE ART OF WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY Through July 8, 2007, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. First floor west.

'American ABC'

Children in art are often metaphors for our own hopes or fears.

Paralleling the history of a nation still coming of age in the 1800s, "American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America" asks questions about the way in which our evolving national identity was reflected -- or shaped -- by the artistic representation of children. It features work by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and others.

AMERICAN ABC: CHILDHOOD IN 19TH-CENTURY AMERICA Through Sept. 17 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. First floor west.

'Americans Now'

Having suspended its former policy that a subject be deceased for 10 years before his or her portrait can be accepted into the museum's collection, the National Portrait Gallery flaunts its newfound hipness with "Americans Now," a sampling of portraits from the permanent collection featuring such well-known personalities from the past quarter-century as Sen. Hillary Clinton, author Tom Wolfe and filmmaker John Waters.

You'll know you're in the right galleries when you find the bright chartreuse wall paint.

AMERICANS NOW Through April 29 at the National Portrait Gallery. First floor south.

'Artists in Their Studios'

A division of the Smithsonian dedicated to the study and preservation of art papers and other historical records documenting American art history, the Archives of American Art gets but one small piece of real estate in the Reynolds Center, but uses it well.

Featuring photographs of Grant Wood, Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder and others -- sometimes posing, sometimes hard at work in their ateliers, along with letters and other ephemera related to studio practice -- "Artists and Their Studios" is a telling look at the ways in which art-making has changed over time, yet essentially remained the same.

ARTISTS IN THEIR STUDIOS Through Oct. 27 at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. First floor east.

'One Life: Walt Whitman'

What is Hans Namuth's photographic portrait of abstract-expressionist painter Jackson Pollock doing in an exhibition on 19th-century poet Walt Whitman?

I don't really know, but I like the fact that "One Life: Walt Whitman, a kosmos" tries to establish a link, as critic Michael Brennan did when he compared Pollock's art to Whitman's poetry for its "febrile electricity, body fluid semblance and ejaculatory discharge, and sweeping overtures toward the ecstasy of nature."

ONE LIFE: WALT WHITMAN, A KOSMOS Through April 1 at the National Portrait Gallery. First floor east.

William H. Johnson

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has the largest collection in the world of work by William H. Johnson. Forty-two prints by this important American artist are on view in "William H. Johnson's World on Paper," a show that includes many recently conserved -- and never exhibited -- pictures.

As with his painting, Johnson's graphic work is steeped in the bold, simple flavors of African American folk art, while revealing his strong interest in the psychological explorations of German Expressionism.

WILLIAM H. JOHNSON'S WORLD ON PAPER Through Jan. 7 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Second floor south.

'Portraiture Now'

"Portraiture Now," the first in a series of focus exhibitions spotlighting the work of contemporary artists who are expanding the definition of figural depiction, features William Beckman, Dawoud Bey, Nina Levy, Jason Salavon and Andres Serrano.

Standouts include Salavon, whose grainy video approximations capture the essence -- but not the likeness -- of late-night talk hosts Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien; Levy, a realist sculptor utilizing dismemberment and distortion to great, if disorienting, effect; and Serrano, who, true to sometimes controversial form, juxtaposes an oversize, color-saturated photograph of superstar circus clown Bello Nock with one of Holocaust survivor Gisela Glazer.

PORTRAITURE NOW Through Jan. 7 at the National Portrait Gallery. First floor south.

William Wegman

Those who know William Wegman chiefly as the Weimaraner guy, whose photographs of his all-too-pliant canine companions have graced countless T-shirts, calendars, note cards, posters and Christmas ornaments may be surprised to encounter the variety and depth of work in this touring, almost-40-year retrospective, organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass. What they will not be surprised to encounter is the deadpan sense of humor long associated with his work.

Wegman's early videos from the 1970s, such as one in which he offers a tongue-in-cheek spelling lesson to an uncomprehending pooch, are among the show's highlights. But it is his paintings from the past few years, in which the artist collages commercial postcards into a series of incongruous, yet oddly plausible, landscapes, that show him best able to bridge the serious and the silly.

WILLIAM WEGMAN -- FUNNEY/STRANGE Through Sept. 24 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Third floor north.

'Eye Contact'

Call it a homecoming of sorts. During the 6 1/2 -year renovation, "Eye Contact: Modern American Portrait Drawing" was one of the traveling shows organized from the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection. It's back, showcasing the museum's extensive collection of watercolors, drawings and pastels.

EYE CONTACT: MODERN AMERICAN PORTRAIT DRAWING Through Oct. 9 at the National Portrait Gallery. Second floor north.

'Temple of Invention'

Aside from all the art inside it, the Old Patent Office Building itself is reason enough to visit. So says National Portrait Gallery Director Marc Pachter, and he's right.

Begun in 1836, but not completed for more than 30 years, the Greek Revival structure actually contains a mixture of styles, including the Victorianisms added by architect Adolph Cluss after the upper floors of the west and north wings were damaged by fire in 1877. The highlights of the landmark's rich history are the subject of "Temple of Invention: History of a National Landmark," a co-production of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Be sure and check out artist David Beck's "Museum" on your way out of the exhibition, too. Commissioned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the whimsical interactive sculpture, on permanent view, is a miniature homage to the Old Patent Office architecture and its contents, past and present.

TEMPLE OF INVENTION: HISTORY OF A NATIONAL LANDMARK Through July 8, 2007, at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. Second floor south.

'The Presidency and the Cold War'

Adjacent to the Portrait Gallery's permanent "America's Presidents" gallery is a related exhibition space the museum plans to devote to changing thematic shows on aspects of the presidency. The inaugural display, "The Presidency and the Cold War," includes a portrait of Joseph Stalin by Boris Chaliapin, along with a piece of the downed U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers.

THE PRESIDENCY AND THE COLD WAR Through July 8, 2007, at the National Portrait Gallery. Second floor west.

'Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition'

It isn't hard to see why Steve DeFrank's portrait "Mom and Dad" stands out from the 50 others on view in the "Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2006" (a group whittled down from about 4,000 submissions). It could be that it's done in garishly glowing Lite-Brite pegs or that its subjects -- yes, the artist's parents -- are stark naked.

Either way, you'll not forget it, even if it isn't among your favorites on view in this first edition of a planned triennial contemporary portrait competition endowed by longtime National Portrait Gallery docent Virginia Outwin Boochever. Along with the $25,000 first-prize winner, David Lenz, who also gets a National Portrait Gallery commission, finalists include the coolly representational Tina Newberry; Baltimore's Jenny Kanzler, whose "Portrait of an Antelope, Exhibiting an Uncanny Resemblance to Abe" is quasi-abstract; and Nina Levy's 56-inch-tall, painted-polyester-resin "Large Head." If Levy's oversize noggin strikes your fancy, you'll find more by this intriguing artist in the first-floor exhibition "Portraiture Now" (see Page 29).

OUTWIN BOOCHEVER PORTRAIT COMPETITION 2006 Through Feb. 19 at the National Portrait Gallery. Second floor west.

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