Luce Unplugged: 5 Questions with Near Northeast
October 7, 2015

Next on Luce Unplugged, our free, after-hours local concert series, we're featuring sets by two rising D.C. acts. Friday, October 16 from 6-8 p.m. we will be kicking it off with Cruzie Beaux aka Kristina Reznikov who "brings digital beats and distorted guitar together for a grand time," and describes her sound as "loud, heavy, and raw." Next, Near Northeast will play melodic folk, perfect for fall weather. You'll be able to grab snacks and drinks from our cash bar, plus Three Stars Brewing Company will be at the show providing free beer tastings.

Near Northeast, playing at our next Luce Unplugged

If the music isn't enough to pique your interest, stop by to check out the Luce Foundation Center's 3,000 plus artworks (always free). On a recent trip there, Near Northeast were so inspired by one of the center's pieces that they wrote a song in tribute. Read more about the song, the band's history, and their songwriting process below; catch their set at Luce Unplugged at 7 p.m.

Eye Level: Tell us about the band's history.

Avy (guitarist): Kelly and I met in late 2013 when we both answered a call for backing musicians for a one-off classical & folk Indian music concert at the Kennedy Center. We played with a terrific classical dancer and singer, with Kelly playing violin and me doing my best to approximate the timbre and cadence of various Indian string instruments (sitar, sarangi, sarod) on my guitar. I asked our original drummer Alex (who's now based in Lisbon) to play cajon at the Kennedy Center, so even from the beginning our style captured a range of world music influences, and we've continued that with the release of our first album Curios. Austin joined the fold in 2014 after we realized we not only liked each other and could play our instruments with a modicum of originality, but we also could write well together.

EL: Describe your songwriting process.

Kelly (singer/violinist): A lot of our songs start with a riff or chord progression on the guitar. We start to work our other instruments into that, and then once there are distinct sections fleshed out, we argue about structure for a little while to find general rise and fall of the song. Then I usually take a rough cut home and sing over it until a vocal line and lyrics emerge. Then we tighten it up. That process seems to let us all end up with parts we feel responsible for, and won't easily get bored of.

Mr. and Mrs. America by Rex Clawson

EL: We're super excited that you wrote a song in dedication to a Luce artwork, Rex Clawson's Mr. and Mrs. America. Tell us about the song and the piece.

Kelly: I was drawn to the sinister feeling I got while looking at this ostensibly jolly, bright-colored piece. The figures seemed somewhat innocent, smiling proto-citizens with badges for fig leaves, and there's a kind of eerie symbolism of those badges. Avy had written those two very dramatic opening chords, and I think when he sat down at the piano it sort of freed him up to build something unusual around them.

Avy: The three of us went on a little field trip to the Luce Center where we all picked our favorite pieces, and Mr. and Mrs. America struck us as particularly unique in its eccentricity and emotional impact. The dual figures seemed almost musical to me, and I started coupling dissimilar chords and progressions to mimic the unusual partnership I was seeing on the canvas. If you listen to the song, there are a lot of unusual connections, both with how we couple the guitar with the piano, or the violin to the melodica, but also in how we couple chords and time signatures to fit in inelegant, but refreshing ways.

Kelly: Lyrically, I was trying to write something that sounded sort of naïve and earnest: young people exploring a new place that was weary and damaged in ways that predated them, buried animal bones, crows living in disused machines, green pennies deep in a well.

EL: Favorite lyrics?

Austin: Kelly writes most of the lyrics, and if there's a thread that weaves them all together, it's impermanence. Here's one of my favorite lines, from "Impala": "Bad weather's gonna break your teeth in time." It's a visceral line that, if you speak it out loud, comes off the tongue with a gentle rhythm. I think that struggle between opposites —beauty/ugliness, chaos/order— is something we think about a lot. I also enjoy that "in time" can be interpreted as either "eventually" or "in rhythm." But I'm just the kind of person who finds it darkly humorous to imagine teeth being broken to a beat.

EL: How would you describe the D.C. music scene?

Avy: D.C. attracts a certain type of driven, creative, but ultimately prudent and circumspect young person. And I think this comes across in the music and art scene. Many folks came here for a job, or grad school, not to pan for gold. Sometimes this leads to a difficult balancing act between pushing ourselves, creatively, while also being the best in our professional life. But ultimately, I look around and see that I'm playing along someone who has devoted her or his life to international development, gender equality in the workplace, or immigration reform, and I think, how cool is that? Only in D.C.

EL: Where do you find inspiration?

Everyone: Mostly from our Near Northeast musical canine member Darwin, who is as excited as we are to play this amazing music series!

Luce Unplugged is presented with Washington City Paper.

Posted by Amelia on October 7, 2015 in American Art Here, Five Question Interviews, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Symposium: Shifting Terrain: Mapping a Transnational American Art History
October 1, 2015

Victoria Burge

Victoria Burge's Island

On October 16th–17th, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will hold the final event in its five-part series: "The Terra Symposia on American Art in a Global Context." This fall's capstone event, "Shifting Terrain: Mapping a Transnational American Art History," speakers will discuss the transformation of the field over the past decade and suggests future directions for scholarship.

The panels will focus on American objects and their display, changing approaches to studying identities in American art, the role of art in international commerce and diplomacy, the U.S.'s involvement in networks of information distribution, and the place of American art within the global discipline of art history. Speakers include professors and curators from around the globe whose research concerns the history of American art from the Revolution to the present day. In addition, graduate students from Canada, Brazil, Switzerland, England, and the United States will present their current research projects, demonstrating growing interest in the art and visual culture of the United States among art historians worldwide.

The series, which is supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art, began in 2006 with "American Art in a Global Context," a three-day symposium held in celebration of the reopening of the museum after its renovation. Convening leading scholars in the field, this pioneering symposium moved beyond the age-old question, "What is American about American art?" to consider American. art in terms of exchange, migration, trade, and travel. Subsequent symposia held in 2009, 2011, and 2013 examined the ties that bind U.S. art and artists to other regions of the world, such as Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

This closing symposium is a fitting conclusion to series that has been instrumental in encouraging an international dialogue on American art and its place within a global art history. More than 115 scholars from six continents have contributed to the series. Thanks to travel support from the Terra Foundation, each international presenter was able to invite a graduate student from his or her home country to participate in the events. Recordings of all five Terra Symposia will be available as webcasts so that people around the world can watch the entire series.

"Shifting Terrain: Mapping a Transnational American Art History" will be held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum October 16th–17th. Register at

Rebecca Singerman, research intern, wrote this post.

Posted by Jeff on October 1, 2015 in American Art Research
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Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave at The Crystal Palace
September 29, 2015

Karen Lemmey, SAAM's sculpture curator, has organized an installation entitled Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers' Greek Slave. Powers' Greek Slave was one of the most popular sculptures of the 19th century. As part of her preparation, Karen worked with Smithsonian X 3D, part of the Institution's Digitization program, to create a 3D model of the this sculpture. Karen continues to provide context to Powers' work. You may also read her other posts on Powers' work: his then-scandalous use of body casting instead of modeling and creating a 3D model of the sculpture, as well as a piece about conserving the Greek Slave.

Greek Slave at Great Exhibition

Statue of the Greek Slave in the east nave of the Great Exhibition; London, England; 1851. From a hand-colored lithograph courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Hiram Powers' first marble version of the Greek Slave appeared more lifelike than ever at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, where it stood on a rotating pedestal under a lavish red canopy that gave the marble a rosy hue. Six million visitors attended this international fair, which took place in London in 1851 in the glass pavilion known as the Crystal Palace. It was the first exhibition of its kind to include a section dedicated to the United States.

Powers' Greek Slave served as the centerpiece of a display that included a tipi, Native Americans, portraits of presidents, a cylinder engine, and other objects associated with progress and national identity. The Greek Slave was celebrated for its extraordinary beauty and earned Powers international praise. The sculpture also became a site for abolitionist demonstrations at the fair, including several staged by African American fugitive slaves, and sparked the British press to criticize the endurance of slavery in the United States.

The popularity of the Greek Slave at the fair contributed to market demands for reductions, replicas, and photographic images, only some of which were authorized by Powers. Miniature knock-offs extended the appeal of Powers' artwork to people who could never afford to buy his original marble versions. Like the plastic reproductions of the Colosseum that prove irresistible to many tourists today, reduced replicas of the Greek Slave satisfied a nineteenth-century demand for souvenirs. Many firms sold reductions but none were as accurate as those produced by the British firm Minton and Company, which used a mechanical reduction machine to capture the details from Powers' original Greek Slave.

In time, Minton's mass-produced porcelain replicas of the Greek Slave were collected in their own right. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass displayed a Minton reduction of the sculpture in his home.

SAAM's installation, Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave continues until February 19, 2017.

Posted by Jeff on September 29, 2015 in American Art Here, American Art Sculpture
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In This Case: Pioneers of the West
September 23, 2015


Helen Lundeberg's Pioneers of the West

Is it possible for a painting to describe two histories? Take a step back in time to both the Oregon Trail and the Great Depression, both periods of unknown adventure, uncertainty, hard times, perseverance, and optimism. What links these two eras together? The answer is Helen Lundeberg's 1934 painting Pioneers of the West, now on display in the museum's Luce Foundation Center.

Helen Lundeberg was a member of the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, which aimed to beautify the nation with images of American heritage and everyday life. Attempting to capture a shared heritage, Lundeberg decided to paint an "American scene" that captures the mood of the 1930s within an image of United States history. Unlike many of her colleagues who drew scenes from 1930s life, like Ray Strong's Golden Gate Bridge, Lily Furedi's Subway, and Millard Sheets' Tenement Flats, Lundeberg's mural uniquely describes United States heritage and community as a group of Anglo-Americans families traveling west into the distant Rocky Mountains. Difficult economic times, strength in community and family, and hope for the future are characteristics that define both America's Manifest Destiny, but also the New Deal. Though this image describes a scene from the Oregon Trail, the memory of this challenging time also characterizes the feelings of the Great Depression. Viewers today can look upon the painting like a dream within a dream, or in this case, a history within a history.

Lundeberg's Pioneers of the West painting shows how our present can affect how we look at the past. Just as art can be interpreted in many different ways, so can history. Does this artwork reveal the truth about the past? As a student of history, this is a question that interests me.

Posted by Ryan on September 23, 2015 in American Art Here, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Trevor Paglen: Surveillance in Life and Art
September 17, 2015

Artist Trevor Paglen spoke last week in the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture Series, and said his goal as an artist is to “help us see the historical moment we live in.” Paglen made a case that this is true for all art over time, no matter the time period, and showed examples from Turner to Rothko, leading up to present times.

And what exactly is the artist's role in the post-Snowden era? For Paglen, who contributed images to the film Citizen Four, what he wants from art are "things that help us see the historical moment that we live in." These include "new metaphors and new ways of seeing." Paglen, at home "in the artist's studio and the researcher's lab," has looked at the surveillience state that marks our lives, and from it has drawn questions, answers, and thought-provoking works of art

"What does surveillance look like?" is a question that informs Paglen's work. The answer is not always clear. It could resemble, Paglen noted, "bad powerpoint." First you have to find the satellites, machinery and hidden buildings, the underwater cables and landing sites. Sometimes the search even reveals poetry: did you know a group of satellites was known as a constellation? Some of his photographs are taken from a distance of more than forty miles away, when "things begin to collapse." From these, Paglen makes memorable images that in themselves, have an abstract (evasive?), unreal quality to them. As he told us the other evening, "I've always been attracted to hazy and indistinct images because I think the world is that way and difficult to see."

In one of my favorite moments, Paglen referenced western photographers Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-1882) and Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), whose careers included work as survey photographers for the U.S. government. In essence, they were doing 19th-century reconnaissance.

There may be nothing new under the sun...expect for the countless satellites keeping track over us. Paglen's work helps make the invisible visible.

If you missed Paglen's talk, watch it now:

The Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture Series continues on October 7 with critic Christopher Knight's talk: Warhol's Wig: Cracking the Pop Art Code

Posted by Howard on September 17, 2015 in Lectures on American Art
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