The Corcoran seems to be thinking again -- not just about money, its chief preoccupation over the past decade or so -- but about art, even art before 1960.
After years of struggling to get on an even keel financially, the Corcoran now appears to be doing what museums are supposed to do -- creatively package ideas to teach viewers how to look a and respond to works of art and o more fruitfully perceive the world around them. That is, after all, what makes museums more than Mere storehouses for art.
I is not a dramatic change, but a welcome and palpable one, notable at the moment in a small exhibition titled "The Object as Subject," a few dozen American still-life paintings from the Corcoran collection, organized, with elucidating text. by the Corcoran's curator of collections, Edward Nygren.
This show follows other recent theme shows organized by Nygren, notably "Changing Prospects," which deal with Americn landscape painting. Unfortunately such exhibitions get little attention in these days of razzle-dazzle extravaganzas like King Tut. They are, nonetheless, the life blood of a good museum.
"The Obhect as Subject" was chiefly organized to celebrate the acquisition last year of an amusing still-life, "Plucked Chicken" (by American trompe-l'oeil painter William Harnett) a takeoff on the pompous, game-trophy paintings which proliferated in the 1880s. Two such paintings of elegant game birds hanging by their feet are hung on the opposite wall.
But beyond offering the simple pleasure of seeing some of the Corcoran's still-life holdings, from Charles Bird King's "Poor Artist's Cupboard," dated 1815, to Franklin White's bird's eye view of a tabletop, from 1973, this show leaves the viewer with new information and new things to think about.
The point is made, for example, that still-life and realism have been current preoccupations in art history since the mosaics of ancient Rome, with a strong resurgence in 17th-century Dutch painting, and again in early American art.
Within this context, the companion exhibition of "Still-Life Photographs," featuring newly acquired work by several contemporary photographers (happily, many from the Washington area), takes on added importance as a statement about the resurgence of interest in both still-life and realism in current photography. It also indicates a far greater range, both visually and emotionally, than that observed in the pristine, largely decorative paintings from the past.
For example, Harnett's "Plucked Chicken"may be amusing as history, but comparison with Tim Kilby's poignant photograph of frozen dog lost to an ice storm shows a far deeper awareness and sympathy with life. It may be cold outside, but it is far colder standing in front of Kilby's chilling photograph. Kelby is also concurrently showing solo at the Intuitiveye Gallery, 641 Indiana Ave. NW.
On the other hand, Ron Stark's food photographs, along with innumerable other fine works in color, all share the glistening virtuosity of the painted still-lifes from the past.
Many of those still-struggling photographers will no doubt share Charles Bird King's sense of irony expressed in his "Poor Artist's Cupboard," which deals with the "advantages" of poverty. The current generation, however, has some advantages unknown to its artistic ancestors. Both the National Endowment for the Arts and Polaroid Corp. have contributed funds to purchase these photographic works. It would be hard to think of a better place for them to be putting their money at the present moment.
The Corcoran's aforementioned still-life photo show begins with a tiny color photograph by Corcoran Art School professor William Christenberry, well-known hereabouts as a sculptor. Christenberry had been taking for years with a Brownie camera these small, straight-on images of the South as references for his paintings. Photographer Walker Evans convinced him that he should treat them as objects in themselves. Since then, Christenberry's jewel-like images of his native Alabama -- its buildings, signs and graveyards -- have been widely known.
Now, diagonally across the Corcoran atrium, Christenberry bursts forth with a show of large new photographs made over the past two years with a borrowed, large-format camera -- his first show on this scale. These 20 by 24 color prints also show greater compositional complexity and possibilities for the future.
The show begins with two of the most striking photographs, lush green landscapes (titled "Kudzu and Road near Akron, Alabama"), which seem, oddly, to imply ominous presences, though there is no one in sight. The first photograph appears to be a secret meeting of green, vine-covered ghosts. The point of view adds to the mystery: the photographer's vantage point seems defensive, as if he were afraid to approach tje scene directly.
Christenberry is a one-man dial-a-fact about the South, and a phone call subsequently brought forth the fact that these kudzu vines had been introduced originally along roadsides in the South to prevent erosion, "but in that climate they take over everything, including smaller trees."
But he also explained that as a child he was told by his father to stay out of kudzu parches, lest a snake emerge in the form of a loop, and do him in.
"I try to show a direct response to what I see and feel strongly about," he explains, and it is testimony to Christenberry's extraordinary abilities as a photographer that his response to what he sees comes through so clearly -- fear and mystery in the case of the kudzu, reverence in contemplating the crumbling corrugated tin facades, tender but respectfully distant sympathy when looking at the grave of a child.
The photographs vary in interest -- some too persistent in their frontality, others too redolent of Walker Evans. But throughout this show, notably in "Horses and Black Buildings," literally, broader horizons.
"I consider myself an artist, not just a photographer, or a sculptor or a painter," says Christenberry, and the total image of Christenberry as artist seems just about to snap into focus. His work will be featured in the next issue of "Aperture" magazine, and Walter Hopps is currently orgazizing a show of his work in all media for an Alabama Museum. With luck, that show will also come to Washington.
This exhibition, also paid for by the National Endowment for the Arts and Polariod Corp., continues through Feb. 11, and the fine little accompanying catalogue is a must for any collector of books on photography.
Buying art is easy; reselling it is not. As a result, collectors trying to turn art back into cash are often forced to give the work to a dealer on consignment, and when (and if) the work is sold, pay a commission of anywhere from 30 to 50 percent. Tha can bite hard into appreciated value.
In an imaginative attempt to stimulate trade in unloved works of art, without taking away all the joy and half the profit. Gallery 4 (115 S. Columbus St., Alexandria) is having its second annual art resale through January. For a $2 entry fee, it will take in a bona fide work of art, show it, and, if it sells, take only a 20 percent commission.
Prices have been set by sellers and are, the gallery reports, in line with the current market or below. Bargaining is obviously a possibility in such cases. Though the exhibition changes as things are brought in, the current group includes several early-20th-century American graphics by Peggy Bacon, Joseph Hirsch, Grace Albee and Armin Landeck, and, from the 19th century, a landscape etching by Thomas Moran.