Washington D.C. art museum review

Better late than never.  About a month ago I visited the Washington D.C. area.  I made some art, played around with friends, and checked out the local art scene.  In a place where the amount of museums seems to equal the government agencies, it was a bit overwhelming to say the least.  While these institutions are a great place to start, the D.C. art community is more than national archives and historical reenactments.  I started my touring at the National Mall, like most tourists, but what surprised me is that each museum has a small gallery carved out for contemporary work.  For example, while wandering through the African Art Museum I came across a small space filled with burnt canvas paintings and undulating root installations…a happy surprise amongst the tribal icons and woven tapestries.

A must see for national art pride is the National Gallery of Art and especially the East Building where the modern and contemporary collections are displayed.  The West Building is full of expected 20th century work, however my favorite piece in the entire museum is the underground corridor installation Multiverse by Leo Villareal.  This illuminated walking-sidewalk flashes cool LED light over viewers as they move from classical to contemporary.  Other works you’ll find in the West building are a great exhibition in the Tower Gallery of Nam June Paik’s “One Candle, Candle Projection” and a wonderful Rachel Whiteread cast.

The Hirshhorn is another must see if you’re around the mall.  Their permanent collection is nice, but what really got my attention were the summer exhibitions.  They have a really good collection of video work…probably the most video installations I’ve seen in any one place.  Right now they have three shows featuring video; Grazia Toderi, Laurent Grasso, and a curated exhibition entitled “Fragments in Time and Space”.  This exhibition addresses the way we perceive and experience the world; how time and space have been conceptualized, employed, and manipulated.  My favorite work is Douglas Gordon’s “Play Dead; Real Time” where viewers are confronted with a large projection of an elephant laying on its side.  The elephant slowly breaths in and out, not moving any other body part.  We watch wanting the animal to stir, but in playing dead our viewing time seems to stand still.

Next on the museum list is the American Art Museum…and yes I know it sounds like it would be a dud but this institution has a great modern/contemporary section where you can find Butterfield, more Nam June Paik, and a Holzer installation.  For some reason (and I loved it) D.C. art museums are filled with Paik’s work.  The American Art Museum has the most extensive Paik collection ranging from early tube television pieces to black box projections.  If you’re a Paik fan, you should totally make a pilgrimage to the museum.  It is very impressive.

There is way to much to cover.  Ok, so last museum…the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  The museum/art school focuses on American work and has a rotating contemporary show.  This summer’s exhibition featured the abstract collage paintings of Chris Martin.  His use of scale and non-traditional materials was very interesting, but the work’s interaction with space was the most exciting aspect of the show.  A single stretched canvas filled an entire gallery room.  Furthermore he utilized the rotunda, a great space to begin with, to create a non-objective narrative where text, paper towels, geological formations, and Victoria’s Secret models collide a la salon style.

This has been a short overview of a very involved art viewing experience.  I haven’t listed every place I visited while in D.C., but these are definitely some highlights.  In the next few days I’ll update a D.C. gallery review…since this seems like enough for one post.  More information on the exhibitions can be found at the Corcoran Gallery, the American Art Museum, the Hirshhorn, or the National Gallery of Art websites.


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