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|Letter from D.C.
by Ellen McBreen
If cherry blossoms and campaign finance debates aren't enough of a
lure, Washington, now has a slew of great shows to make a spring
visit to the capital worth the trip.
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is the contemporary, hip sibling of the respectable Smithsonian family, as is amply demonstrated by a pair of exhibitions currently on view. "Directions: Leonardo Drew," Mar. 16-June 20, 2000, and "Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawings," Feb. 17-Apr. 23, 2000. The museum cuts a refreshingly round figure on an otherwise square and stodgy National Mall.
Drew, a contemporary African American artist who has exhibited at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York as well as in the 1994 Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh, has transformed one of the Hirshhorn's galleries into a kind of 21st-century cathedral interior.
Massive assemblage installations cover three walls, their wild and colorful scraps of detritus shimmering like junkyard stained glass. These giant wall sculptures lure viewers close, their manic and intricate surfaces demanding a palpable intimacy.
Drew begins with a compartmentalized ground of square wood panels, marked with a grid and painted black. In many areas, he chips off or violently scores the top layer of black paint, revealing naked wood underneath. On top of this black-blond ground, Drew affixes a dizzying array of refuse, salvaged scraps that are like entries in one big encyclopedia of material culture.
In one of the three untitled works, these scraps are mostly discarded bits of technology -- heater dials, tiny light bulbs, circuit boards. Tangled clumps of frenetic wire spill out over its surface, like the guts of a robot breaking down.
Stand back and take in the whole panel, and dynamic waves of color seem to move across its surface. At its middle a diagonal explosion of salvaged wood boards lurches out at the viewer, like a treacherous staircase in an abandoned house.
A more fastidious style of sculptural installation is found downstairs in the Robert Gober exhibition. Gober is an American artist who recasts the mundane artifacts of daily life, robbing them of familiarity, eerily transforming them with sardonic humor. Imagine a Surrealist who has been let loose in a Minimalist's studio, injecting those laconic forms with troubling reminders of death and paranoia.
Smart and subtle, Gober's work imbues innocuous household objects -- furniture, wallpaper, drains, utility sinks -- with suggestions of sexuality, as if to return to family and home what has been aggressively repressed.
Gaping holes in functionless sinks stripped of their plumbing, and drains mounted in walls recall bodily orifices. A hilarious candle with a pubic hair base begs for its phallic tip to be ignited. A sack-like human torso slumps against the wall, like a bag of seed in the corner of some creepy suburban garage.
The show, organized by Walker Art Center curator Richard Flood, ambitiously covers about 25 years of Gober's career, and includes about 100 drawings. But many of the artist's better-known works are absent, including the Madonna statue pierced by the culvert pipe (which created such a noisy flap at a 1997 Los Angeles show).
Gober's memorials to lost childhood are movingly tender and morbidly deadpan at once. Two tiny red Mary-Janes are cast in red wax to emphasize their fragility. An abandoned pair of girl's ice skates are hung from a nail, just out of reach. A playpen is contorted into a menacing X-shape, to evoke the often confining, even distorting experience that is growing up.
Gober also makes provocative newspaper collages that combine sickly cheery wedding announcements with horrifying tales of homophobia and child abuse. One brief blurb records the death of a six-year-old Gober, drowned in the family's backyard pool in just three inches of water. Many of Gober's most flexible archetypes -- water, drains, pipes -- must also have deeply personal associations.
The drawings reveal the elasticity of Gober's motifs, which reappear as if symbols in a dream. Pairs of sinks looking like cartoon lovers in one drawing morph into tombstones in another. These self-directed doodles show Gober sifting through ideas for his sculpture, the medium here that has the most impact. You can't help wishing this show was more three-dimensional.
Remedios Varo at the NMWA
"The Magic of Remedios Varo," Feb. 10-May 29, 2000, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, presents a more playful, fantastic vision of how surreal home life can be. Varo's exquisitely painted autobiographical dramas are definite crowd pleasers.
Varo's paintings are populated with egg-shaped boats for one, hats made of sails, and coat tails that double as bicycle parts. The delicious textures of her feathery garments rival those of Jan van Eyck.
Although this is her first U.S. retrospective, Varo (1908-1963) has been revered in Mexico since the 1950s. Spanish by birth, and then an exile of war, Varo eventually made Mexico her home. Although André Breton recognized her adopted country as "the Surrealist place par excellence," Varo's hallucinating visions are quite removed from those of the French-based, mostly male movement that Breton led (and that Varo herself belonged to as a young woman in Paris).
For instance, instead of eroticized symbols, the women in Varo's paintings are active protagonists -- explorers, wizards, female Inspector Gadgets, but also prisoners in their own domestic interiors. In Creation of the Birds (1957), Varo depicts the artist-creator as a wise female owl working in a spare monk's chamber, animating a bird with the help of strange anthropomorphic lab equipment and moonlight refracted through a prism. It's clear that she's conceived of her own art-making as wondrous alchemy.
Daumier at the Phillips Collection
If you only have an afternoon in D.C., however, and your tastes run more to the real than the surreal, you'll want to save your museum stamina for "Honoré Daumier" (1808-1879) at the Phillips Collection. Daumier's 245 works trace a visually provocative portrait of 19th-century France, more penetrating than any history book.
The show is on view in Washington, D.C., until May 14, after which it moves back to the Grand Palais in Daumier's hometown of Paris. The U.S. political nerve center is the ideal American venue for Daumier, who had a biting intolerance for the hypocrisy and self-importance of the powers-that-be. Daumier's vision is just as fresh and relevant as it was over 100 years ago.
Pompous barristers double as histrionic performers in Daumier's "Men of Justice" series (38 lithographs from the 1840s). Images like these should have special resonance in this lawyer-heavy town. You can feel the vulnerability of their helpless clients in each perfectly placed, nervous line.
Daumier's Legislative Belly (1834) sends up the politicians of his day as overfed cretins with empty ghoulish eyes. In Ratapoil, a scruffy, suspicious character who represents the reactionary henchmen of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, is pictured with a cudgel, both weapon and means of persuasion for this political hit man.
Daumier pushed his own republican politics right to the edge. His 1831 caricature of Louis-Philippe lampooned the French leader as a disgusting glutton. It earned Daumier both jail time and instant fame at the age of 23.
But Daumier's artistic output was hardly limited to political polemic. Daumier, the realist painter, studied ordinary people with tender, nuanced depth. He had a special affinity for Parisians whose métiers took them to the streets, their labor stamped on the very forms of their bodies.
His Laundress (ca. 1860-61) shows a working mother struggling up a flight of stairs, with a heavy sack of laundry in one hand and a child in the other. Their solitary straining dark forms are dramatically silhouetted against the whiteness of a Parisian cityscape. The stoop of her weary body, which her child is learning to emulate, evokes the endless toil of her work -- and eventually, that of her child's. Daumier endowed realistic street scenes with a sense of heroism.
He shows nostalgic sympathy, too, for relics of a disappearing Paris -- the traveling performer and saltimbanques for whom modern Paris no longer had any room. Entertainers consistently fascinated him -- Daumier may have even thought of himself as one. His painting Crispin and Scapin (c. 1863-65) depicts two stock personalities of the French theatre, locked in conspiratorial whisper (much like his lawyers).
Daumier's layered technique, his glowing light and color, steal the show right out from under the actors' wicked noses. He bathes their bodies with the supernatural glow of the stage, envisioned as a place of magic. Degas, perhaps not surprisingly, was a devoted fan (at one time, he owned 1,800 of Daumier's lithographs). Visually astute artists would continue to follow his most modern of leads well into the next century.
ELLEN McBREEN is New York based art historian and critic.