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The Power of Art

Sunday, July 29, 2007

OUDRY'S PAINTED MENAGERIE Portraits of Exotic Animals In Eighteenth-Century Europe Edited by Mary Morton | Getty Museum. 151 pp. Paperback, $39.95

Any monarch properly dedicated to pomp must have a menagerie, a collection of wild and exotic animals. Or so thought the French king Louis XIV, who established one at Versailles in 1662. Gazelles nibbled on the palace's lawns while ostriches, herons and egrets stalked a re-creation of an African desert. The king of Portugal sent him an elephant, and the king of Siam presented three crocodiles. His great grandson Louis XV inherited the collection of animals from across the globe, but not Louis XIV's enthusiasm. Perhaps that's why he never bought the 13 animal portraits that famed court artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry painted for him. Featured in Oudry's Painted Menagerie, the paintings demonstrate the growing seriousness of the new field of natural history. "The precision and sensitivity with which Oudry recorded the details of each animal's appearance was of generally recognized scientific value," writes Mary Morton in her essay on the collection. An Indian blackbuck is startlingly vibrant; one can practically hear the hyena snarl. And the portrait of Clara, a wildly popular rhinoceros who traveled with much fanfare all across Europe, conveys the dignity of a duchess.

-- Rachel Hartigan Shea

POP A Celebration of Black FatherhoodBy Carol Ross | Stewart, Tabori & Chang. $29.95

With her evocative black-and-white portraits of African-American fathers interacting with their children, Carol Ross offers persuasive tribute to the many men whose tender labors often go unnoticed. The dads in Pop range in age from mid-20s to 74, some "raising their children alone, some share custody, some are married or are raising children from several marriages," according to Ross. A few of them are celebrities (including movie star Samuel L. Jackson and MTV personality "Funkmaster Flex"), but most are men who conduct their daily lives far from the spotlight. They are also as thoughtful and articulate as they are loving. Tony Bolton, a TV executive shown with his son and daughter, smartly sums up the paternal experience as "joyous, tedious and exhilarating all in one breath." As well-spoken as these "pops" are, Ross's photos say so much more.

-- Jabari Asim

ARMED AMERICA Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes By Kyle Cassidy | Krause. 208 pp. $30

Several of the staff photographers at The Washington Post are fans of a shooter (photographer, that is) named Kyle Cassidy. His photo-a-week blog, kylecassidy.com, has many comforting close-ups of sandwiches (mostly veggies on just-right toast) and of his cat, Roswell. His gallery shows and fashion photos, on the other hand, revolve around levitating bodies, bloody-lipped goths and dominatrices.

Now Cassidy has put out a coffee table book that combines in every image the ordinary and the bizarre, the comforting and the unnerving. Over the course of two years, he traveled 15,000 miles to take these pictures of shooters (gun owners, that is) in their homes. They pose with their Stoeger Condor 12-gauges, Mossberg 590s, Mini Uzi SMGs, Glock 26s and AK-47s. And also with their chef's tunics, teddy bears and silk flower arrangements. A lot seem to have cats.

Cassidy asked each subject the same question: "Why do you own a gun?" Their answers are next to their pictures, without comment. The result is highly political, even polemical. The question is, in which direction? Each picture in Armed America could be a pro-gun advertisement -- or an anti-gun poster. That's what makes the book so riveting.

-- Alan Cooperman

SILENT THEATER The Art of Edward Hopper By Walter Wells | Phaidon. 264 pp. $69.95

"Among the best read of painters," Edward Hopper (1882-1967) created a "formidable body of what feels very much like visual literature," writes Walter Wells, in this splendid book that coincides with a Hopper retrospective opening at the National Gallery of Art on September 16th. Wells critically examines Hopper's work in the context of his life, "brooding melancholy" and all. Abundantly illustrated and including pages from Hopper's personal notebooks, Silent Theater presents all that the artist focused on in six decades of work: urbane, closely observed, powerfully intelligent paintings of everyday life, from gas stations to restaurants to street scenes and houses. Hopper's haunting vision gives us great art and pop culture at the same time. As Wells writes in his preface: "These images have become modern icons -- characteristically American, yet increasingly familiar. . . . more deeply embedded in the popular imagination than those of any other American artist." Wells concludes that, in a modest way, "Edward Hopper taught us . . . a new way of seeing the twentieth century."

-- Evelyn Small

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate By Michael Wallis and Michael S. Williamson | Norton. 293 pp. $39.95

Road trip, anyone? Adventures await at every stop along the 3,389-mile drive through 13 states retracing the Lincoln Highway, brainchild of Indianapolis Motor Speedway founder Carl G. Fisher. A memorial to the 16th U.S. president, the Lincoln Highway launched in 1913 with bonfires, parades and fireworks. Thousands of Boy Scouts marked the route with 3,000 concrete markers in 1928, but then it passed into obscurity as numbered highways began replacing named roadways.

Michael Wallis, author, historian, and the voice of Sheriff in the Pixar animated feature Cars, hit the road with Michael S. Williamson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post photographer, to rediscover the meandering concrete, asphalt and dirt relic, digging up history, photographing the present and creating a rich, insightful American travelogue.

Kicks abound along the precursor to Route 66, which Wallis has also written about, from pop culture icons such as the giant Carpet Muffler Man of Jersey City seen in the "Sopranos" TV series to more obscure curiosities such as the Ronald Reagan portrait made from 14,000 jellybeans in Illinois, Pretty Boy Floyd's death mask in Ohio, and Nevada's puzzling Shoe Tree.

-- Mary Ishimoto Morris

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