August 5, 2012


Recently, I was able to get away to Washington DC to visit some of my oldest friends. We usually only get to see each other at Christmas now, so this long weekend was a real treat. As one of my friends noted, this is probably the first time she's seen me in a tank top since high school. I've usually got on winter layers when we're together.

I used this trip to try out the Megabus that runs between Knoxville and DC. Megabus has been available to Knoxvillians for about a year now. I've ridden the Greyhound a few times before, and while I got little sleep on the overnight Megabus, I recommend it over Greyhound. Hands down. I would still pick Megabus even if the on-board toilet were backed up and the entire bus smelled like poo.

I arrived in DC early, and spent most of the day by myself. My boss suggested I check out the Phillips Collection for the afternoon. I arrived soon after it opened, I was able to see all of it before meeting a friend for lunch without feeling rushed. I spent about two hours there, seeing the permanent collection, the Jasper Johns print exhibition, and an Antony Gormley drawing / works on paper show.

It was interesting to see the Johns prints. I sit with one in my office every day, however, I haven't seen many others that he has done. My favorite piece from the whole show was Fragment of a Letter, which combined stenciled writing, drawings of hands forming sign language letters, and imprints of Johns' own hands in sign language.  The Gormley show was a nice surprise. At work, we are preparing a drawing show for the upcoming semester. I've been looking at a lot of images for PR and the catalogue. Gormley's drawings could fit right in. This show exhibited works in black and white. The works were mostly figurative and silhouettes -- suggesting the relationship between a person and space. The drawings and prints were small, playful, loose, and quiet. They made me think about pulling out my India ink and trying to work spontaneously.

The only thing I didn't like about the museum was their militant no-closer-than-two-feet-to-the-art rule. I understand why the rule is there, but sometimes I just want to look at some details, and William Christenberry Brownie color photographs are only so big. Just saying. I may have been a little naughty and snuck closer to the art when the guard was in the other room. I was so thrown off by the two foot rule, I had no idea if I was allowed to take notes in pen. It was all I had, so I was secretly scribbling notes in hallways and the bathroom. 

Favorites from the Phillips Collection were two Alexander Calder sculptures installed in the stairwell. I liked them more for their shadows than for what they were physically. Most of my fascination with contemporary sculpture in a gallery setting is with its lighting potential. Lighting can make or break a sculpture. A small, very obviously Calder, freestanding wire mobile stood on a ledge next to the handrail. I could have reached out and touched it. Its spindly shadow extended behind it on the ledge and the wall. While I was looking at this sculpture, something else caught my eye. There was an ambiguous shadow higher up on the wall of the stairwell. I watched it spin slowly, and it began to turn into the caricature of a flying, squawking bird. I also liked learning about the story of photographer Harry Callahan and his wife / muse, Eleanor. He would photograph her constantly -- sometimes clothed and sometimes in the nude, sometimes candid and sometimes posed. What patience and love! Other favorites were photographs by Aaron Siskind, Woman in Profile by Chaim Soutine, and Braque's Philodendron.

Soutine, I loved her goofy and unconventional profile

Something about the perspective, the bentwood chair, and the vibrant colors made this perfect to me.

My other major museum visit was to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. I love natural history museums -- the stuffed animals, rows and rows and boxes of pinned, shimmering bugs, fossils, minerals, and every other beautiful and freaky thing this world has fostered, evolved, and grown. When I was little, I wanted to be a paleontologist. I never made it there, but that fascination still exists.

Natural history museums, more so than other kinds of museums make me think about how the museum is evolving to use and accept new technology  to continue to keep visitors engaged, learning, and returning.  Gone are the dioramas, the dramatic narrative, and the posed animals. In the Hall of Mammals monkeys swing from and panthers lounge on brushed steel bars instead of branches. Animals democratically share cases with other creatures they would have never encountered in the wild. I have to admit, I'm a fan of the older presentation style.

A wolf snarling match, taken by my friend, during a trip we took to the Harrisburg, PA state museum a few years ago.

Posing with my arch-nemesis -- complete with "tree" and "lifelike forest floor"

There were TV screens with informative videos, computers that would morph your digital image into Homo erectus, and signs everywhere encouraging to engage online -- even suggesting twitter hashtags to use. I kind of miss the museums being "boring." I don't focus as well when there are bright, flashing screens, and buttons to push. But I can't help but wonder if people felt this way when anamatronic dinosaurs started to become a "thing" in the 1990s.

I also saw Whistler's Peacock Room at the Freer. It was nice. That is an understatement. But, this is a long post. That is also an understatement.