Five Questions: Craft in a Different Light
February 12, 2016
The reopening of the Renwick is cause for celebration: WONDER is setting attendance records and turning visitors into instant Instagrammers. Eye Level recently sat down with Renwick curators Nicholas Bell (The Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge) and Nora Atkinson (Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft) to talk about the museum's renovation, the intersection of craft and technology, and what the future holds.
Eye Level: The renovated Renwick strikes a balance between the historic and the state of the art. Can you address the conversation between the past, present, and future that's taking place in the building?
Nicholas Bell: What makes the Renwick very special is that so much of the history of the building is on view. You can see the fabric of Renwick and Corcoran's original vision to make this very auspicious space something of a landmark 156 years ago. Although that has been covered up during different generations of use, we have been able to uncover as much as possible so that what you are walking through is fairly close to the experience you would have had in the building even as far back as the 1870s in terms of its structure. The Corcoran "C"s are still above the door and those flourishes are part of the building. The plaster cornices have been carefully maintained. We are attempting to bring a level of craftsmanship to the building and the visitor experience such as hand gilding. However, that could describe the life of various buildings. What makes the Renwick unique is that we are treating this historic foundation very carefully, but at the same time using it to launch into an investigation of how our interaction with the material world is evolving in ways we can barely foresee and have been thrust upon us. It is often said that we are living through a new industrial revolution, with new technologies that will change the way we live and think about the world.
EL: Can you share an example from the museum?
Nicholas: Transitioning the entire building to LED lighting, for example, is one way to embrace that revolution. Taking a 19th-century sculpture, Hiram Powers' Greek Slave, and recreating it via a 3D printer is another way to tip our hat at that flood of creative technology. Together, our eye on the future and our careful protection of the past has created something of an unusual, and maybe even a thrilling place to visit.
EL: How do these ideas help to change our perceptions of "craft" vs. "art"?
Nora Atkinson: The craft vs. art debate has been around for decades and is showing no sign of ending, but that was not a real concern of ours. What we wanted to do here is forget about those rigid distinctions and look at craft more as a language of process and materiality that can teach us something about the world. As a craft museum that’s positioning itself for the future, it’s the perfect time for us to be exploring these questions because craft, maybe as opposed to art, is so frequently thought of as backward looking and nostalgic. Craft, to me, is not so much about romanticizing the past, but more about stopping the tide of always thinking the “new and next” is the best thing. It examines the positives and negatives of progress in light of where we’ve come from, and finds that balance between the two. What we have in the architecture, for example, when it comes into contact with Leo Villareal’s light sculpture Volume in WONDER, is a very gentle harmony between the beauty of hand-crafted work done with the tools of the time which probably couldn’t be recreated today, and what’s being done now with cutting edge technologies. Craft has a remarkable ability to comment on our history and future with that kind of real world experience.
EL: Can craft and technology play well together?
Nicholas: There are people interested in the way technology is changing their craft and they are not shy about investigating those techologies. We find ourselves defending this kind of use within what people called the craft field there is often this assumption that you should be reaching back into history, which is really just a nostalgic action. Craft does not mean that you are trying to stop progress. It means that you are passionately invested in that process. That is a passion that can cross any technology.
EL: What will the Renwick's post-WONDER life look like?
Nora: When we put the permanent collection back on view on the second floor one of the things we want to do is to get away from the medium-based or period-based view of how we display the objects and how we put objects together. The newly installed galleries in the permanent collection will still be a sensory overload: eighty pieces in 4 galleries. The galleries will transform from massive one-person installations to many small objects. The upcoming Renwick Invitational on the ground floor will still capture that sense of WONDER. Jennifer Trask, for example, works with gilt antique frames and bone to create vanitas type arrangements of floral compositions. We’ll be interested to see how people react to a return to craft in a way, a return to small objects, but hopefully seeing them in a different light.
We Remember Collector Teodoro Vidal
February 10, 2016
Teodoro Vidal, who died last month at the age of 92 in his native Puerto Rico, was a businessman, folklorist, and philanthropist. He was also a collector and self-taught historian, and in the mid-1990s, donated more than half of his collection of 3,346 objects to the Smithsonian. Many of the objects donated to the National Museum of American History were used in everyday life, such as games, eating implements, amulets, and musical instruments. In addition, works of fine art and religious devotional objects such as wood-carved saints (santos de palo) were given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "I found that there were not only Santos, but also ex-votos, mortars, furniture, and many of these objects were worthwhile conserving," Vidal said at the time, "Therefore I committed myself to the job of preserving all these significant objects of our heritage..."
A graduate of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Vidal joined the U.S. Army and served in the Korean War. In the 1950s, he returned to Puerto Rico and became part of the first board of directors of the newly formed Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. He would soon become involved with further efforts to preserve Puerto Rico's cultural identity. From his earliest days as a collector he was interested in both the everyday and the sublime, two opposite poles that resonated with him and became the foundation of his collection. He was able to amass a selection of work that documented more than four-hundred years of Puerto Rican culture. "I always thought of this collection as a reaffirmation of puertorriqueñidad, the unique identity and culture of Puerto Rico," Vidal wrote. His goal was to conserve the material culture of the island before "industrialization and modern life, which tend to erase the old customs of peoples."
In a letter to Vidal at the time of the gift, then Secretary of the Smithsonian, I. Michael Heyman wrote, "Yours is one of the most significant donations ever made to either the National Museum of American Art [now the Smithsonian American Art Museum] or the National Museum of American History. It is a milestone in the history of both museums." Elizabeth Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent director of SAAM added, "We are honored to give these extraordinary works a home in the nation's capital." SAAM has sixty-three objects from Teodoro Vidal in its collection, including santos, portraits, and religious paintings. Most notably, the collection contains a selection of portraiture and religious paintings by the 18th century painter, José Campeche y Jordan, one of the most important artists in Puerto Rico's history. His nickname was "The Latin American Copley" for his likenesses of society's elite. He also designed and created large altarpieces for churches in San Juan and Caracas, Venezuela. A selection of Campache's paintings as well as Santos figures from the Vidal collection, are currently on view in the New Spain gallery on the second floor of the museum and in the Luce Foundation Center.
Teodoro Vidal ensured that Puerto Rico's material culture would be conserved, preserved, and displayed. SAAM is honored to have been entrusted with this important collection. E. Carmen Ramos, our curator of Latino art, recently reflected, "The Vidal Collection has had a transformative impact on how our permanent collection can tell the story of colonial art in the Americas. We are now able to show how a rich and unique kind of colonial artistic production took place beyond the thirteen colonies. The Vidal collection reveals the Hispanic side of the colonial story in a geographic area that is now part of the United States. For this we are ever grateful to Teodoro Vidal."
On Thornton Dial (1928-2016)
February 4, 2016
The American artist Thornton Dial died on January 25, 2016, at the age of 87. Leslie Umberger, SAAM's curator of folk and self-taught art writes an appreciation about Mr. Dial and his work.
In large-scale painted assemblages and mixed-media sculptures that were both mellifluous and arresting, Dial channeled his perspectives on black life in the American South. He was an artist of paradoxes. He used colors, compositions, and material combinations that appeared bold and contemporary although his experience was that of poverty and hardship in the segregated South. In spite of little formal education, his paintings speak allegorically about African American history and culture with an overriding theme of struggle and the will to overcome. Dial's extraordinary artistic sophistication challenged the boundaries of the mainstream art world and any number of assumptions about art made by an untrained, uneducated African American from rural Alabama. His impact on the art world has already been enormous, and it is only just beginning to be fully gauged.
Dial's mother was a sharecropper and the daughter of sharecroppers and he was raised primarily by his grandmother in Emelle, Alabama. "I was born in Sumter County, Alabama. A midwife delivered me to my mama in a little country house in the field, one of them kind you can lay down and look up through the ceiling and see the sunshine," Dial recounted in interviews from 1995 and 1996 (on file at the Souls Grown Deep Foundation). He goes on to say:
"It is exactly the truth that the Negro has been mistreated in the United States, that he been used. But we got to look at what we have had to use, what he have built, after what he been through. I come through it myself, and I know what life was like at that time, and I can respect myself and the Negro for what we have did.
We was captured and brought over here to the United States. That was the Negro family, captured to do work on the farms. We had to work, and we had also to pay attention. We had to learn surviving. We had to learn that everything you want to do, you got to struggle for it."
It had always been Dial's nature to make things, and coming from a family of little means, using available materials to make things such as toys and fishing lures was the only option. But when his creations grew increasingly large and creative, he hid them, fearing that he was breaking some unspecified law by expressing his personal views.
In 1992, the Smithsonian American Art Museum was among the first museums to welcome a major work by Dial into our collection thanks to a gift from William Arnett, who championed the artist from the time they met around 1987 after being introduced by the artist Lonnie Holley. Holley and Arnett convinced Dial his expressions were not only valid, but meaningful and important.
In African Jungle Picture: If the Ladies Had Knew the Snakes Wouldn't Bite Them They Wouldn't Have Hurt the Snakes; If the Snakes Had Knew the Ladies Wouldn't Hurt Them They Wouldn't Have Bit the Ladies, Dial ruminates on the complexities of trust, using a subtle, fable-like depiction to speak about the larger issue of race relations in the United States. Dial's narrative poses a hard question: How can our culture ever move beyond a centuries-old cycle of mistrust?
SAAM is home to the largest collection of works by African American artists anywhere. In 2012, Dial was among those selected for the exhibition African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond. And, his work appears in this month's online exhibition of African American Art in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute. The painting Top of the Line (Steel) (1992), given to the museum by Ron and June Shelp in 1993, is a frenetic interpretation of the 1992 Los Angeles riots—the response to the acquittal of four white policemen who severely beat the unarmed motorist, Rodney King. The colors black, white, and red tell a tale of racial conflict and bloodshed.
In the fall of 2016, one of Dial's major works, The Beginning of Life in the Yellow Jungle (2003), will be on view in a first floor gallery dedicated to the themes of struggle and persistence. In this vibrant and commanding painted assemblage, Dial speaks of the ephemeral nature of all beings. The colors seem warm and optimistic, yet the tangled composition and the work's title suggest the unending complexities of navigating and surviving this world we share.
It is hard to measure the significance of an artist like Thornton Dial. I was fortunate enough to be among those who met him in the mid-1990s. I was introduced by Bill Arnett, who was already hard at work making sure that the world would know about him, and making sure that Dial would see himself as a part of something vital. Dial made a great impression on me and had an inestimable impact on my own path. But I can't say I knew him. Matt Arnett, Bill's son, has explained:
"Mr. Dial was a private man. He had learned that the best way to survive was to keep his ideas and intentions to himself. It's hard to explain how uncomfortable he was, at first, with all the attention. He spent the first half of his life having very little interaction with white people. He'd rarely eaten at integrated restaurants and never outside of the small town he lived in. He'd rarely had conversations with white people who weren't his boss, and this was in tough, factory settings in the Jim Crow South."
Dial kept making art regardless of who supported him and who didn't; year after year he faced the challenges like he had his entire life. Today Dial's work is held by some of the most notable institutions in the country: the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the High Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
February 3, 2016
February's Handi-hour is sold out, but don't despair! You can get your own private tutoring session with our videos right here. This month we're making string art with map pins, cork boards and embroidery floss. Create an artwork inspired by Gabriel Dawe featuring your initial or home state. And, as is our Handi-hour tradition, we have SweetArts. Make a sweet (or snarky) Valentine like the teacup one featured here.
Keep an eye out for our next Handi-hour video to go up in mid-March and tickets for our Handi-hour on May 24th will go on sale in early May.
Seeing Things (15): Looking Through Glass
January 29, 2016
This is the fifteenth in a series of personal observations about how people experience and explore museums. Take a look at Howard's other blog posts about seeing things.
Today, in the museum, I noticed all kinds of looking, and realized that often we're looking at images through glass. In certain galleries, light-sensitive works of art are behind protective UV, and fragile three-dimensional objects are often cased. I saw an older couple take out a magnifying glass from a small black case that looked like a deck of cards to check out details in a photograph behind a frame.
People of all ages take out their cell phones and snap pictures of art—or of themselves in front of art—and send them to friends in other buildings, in other cities, in other parts of the world. Their phones will ping and they'll be invited to see an image through glass. I thought of all the ways we look and share art these days, and then I thought of Alice—perhaps our foremost storyteller—who traveled to the other side of a mirror to seek her adventures Through the Looking Glass.
We all want to fall into a good story. When we send our images that will be viewed behind a clear screen, perhaps we're following Alice's lead—adding our own narratives to the never-ending mirror of storytelling.