The weekend of Mother's Day, 2017, my Mom was coming up to DC to see a Nationals games with the family of one of my step-brothers. She asked if she could come up the day before to go to some museums with me, and I said sure.
It was rather nerve wracking thanks to Safe Track, the DC's metro's attempt to do five years worth of maintenance in one year. (Hey, at least they're getting around to doing the maintenance.) Part of the Orange Line was shut down, and mom had to take a shuttle bus through the middle of DC. From my perspective, waiting for her at Federal Center, she disappeared for an hour or two.
When she finally got in, we decided to grab some lunch right away, and cut our planned itinerary short. This meant not going to the Freer Gallery of Art/Sackler Gallery (which was about to close for renovations) or the American Indian Museum (to see the exhibit about the rope bridge again). That left us with the Portrait Gallery, which shares a building with the American Art Museum.
The Face of Battle
Scanning the open exhibits the week before, this one had struck me. It was a (mostly) photography exhibit of American soldiers since 9/11, mainly in Afghanistan and Iraq. I came to it thinking the theme was making the soldiers seem human, although the program for the exhibit says it is the artists' "first attempts to assess the reality of the combat experience" in those theatres.
Much of the photography was portraiture, fitting the museum it was in, and it didn't really do anything for me. The works of Tim Hetherington and Louie Palu did nothing for me, neither showing the reality of soldiering or the humanity of the soldiers. However, I do see some fine work by Palu in researching the web sites. I thought the work of Stacy Persall showed the humanity more, and again the work on her website does a much better job than her work in the exhibit. There was also a video of a floating, flag draped coffin working it's way down the streets of America back to it's home, by Vincent Valdez. I thought it sound like a great idea, but I don't think the execution panned out. His paintings in the exhibit, of a friend who died in Iraq, I didn't really like at first. However, they are growing on me as I think of them, for they really give a good sense of the loss of a friend.
I really liked the work of Ashley Gilbertson, who photographed the bed rooms of fallen soldiers, kept immaculately by their families as shrines of a sort. That I thought really showed the humanity of the soldiers who have died for us, and loss suffered by their loved ones. I also liked the exhibit of Emily Prince, who fills walls full of small, drawn portraits of American soldiers who died in the wars. To see the mass and to be able to zoom in on the individual gives a different perspective on the wars.
There was an exhibit on Babe Ruth in the Portrait Gallery as well. I thought my mom would like it, being a baseball fan, and specifically a Yankees fan. As it turns out, she was more of a Joe DiMagio fan growing up. I hate baseball, so I didn't get much out of the exhibit. I did learn some things from the exhibit. I didn't know that Ruth was a good pitcher as well as a hitter. I also finally understand the phrase "the House that Ruth Built," as it was the crowds that Ruth was drawing that allowed the Yankees to upgrade their stadium.
Next to the Babe Ruth exhibit was an exhibit on cats before the internet. I thought it was rather pathetic, just random sketches of cats and pictures of artists with cats in their studios. It seemed like some administrator in the museum wanted to belatedly feed off the cute cat videos on the internet, and some poor intern was sent to scrape through the museum's archives for cat pictures.
Folk Art and Self Taught Art
This section was the first section we went to in the American Art Museum after going through the Portrait Gallery. I thought the title of the section was typical elitist art bullshit. Because you know it's not really art unless you went to art school. There was some very interesting stuff in there, though. There were some statues from a blind guy who would make scarecrow-like statues out of cast of junk he found around his neighborhood. There was another guy from D.C., who had several visions that he was a saint. He made this huge, elaborate display out of old furniture, tin foil, dead light bulbs, purple paper, and odd junk he found around his neighborhood (I'm sensing a theme). He wrote this book in a code only he could read. What I could see of it made me think he was writing a new gospel, his gospel.
Bravo and Onwards
Then we went to a display they had on a gallery, with portraits of people from the entertainment industry, back to the late 19th century, from P.T. Barnum, to Annie Oakley and Elvis, to more modern entertainers. The we went into the more permanent modern American art. I was struck by the installation of tiles on the floor that I accidentally walked over before I realized it was there, and a map of the United States as televisions, each state's televisions showing something different. Maryland was a security camera, I guess because we have the NSA out at Fort Meade. I took a picture of Americans watching America as TV, but it didn't come out well.
All and all I didn't do well with the pictures. I didn't keep good track of the names of the works or the artists. I will try to do better in the future.