Not in the Fast Lane: Anthony Hernandez's Photographs
July 26, 2017

SAAM's current photography exhibition Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography, explores the post-World War II changes taking place in cities across the country through the eyes of ten photographers who documented these transformations. Alex Santana, SAAM's 2015 Latino Museum Studies Fellow and current Manager of Public Engagement at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey gives us some insight into the work of one of these artists, Anthony Hernandez.

Anthony Hernandez

Anthony Hernandez's Public Transit Areas, Termino Ave. and Pacific Coast Highway, Looking North, from the Long Beach Documentary Survey Project

Many Chicano artists during the 1970s and 1980s created work that responded to the overbearing presence of the freeway system in Los Angeles. These winding series of roadways, often adjacent to or directly above low-income barrios of LA, are present in the murals and paintings of Judy Baca, Frank Romero, and Carlos Almaraz, all who came of age when freeway construction transformed the Los Angeles landscape. In more subtle ways, the freeway is also present in the compelling photography of Anthony Hernandez.

Born in 1947, Anthony Hernandez grew up in Aliso Village, a sprawling public housing project east of downtown Los Angeles. Hernandez's career took off in the 1970s when he began to document people traversing the streets of Los Angeles. From the outset, his photography reflected the changing dynamics of the urban environment and its residents.

The statewide modernization projects of California, beginning in the early 1900s, peaking in the 1950s, and continuing until this day, prioritized automotive mobility in LA through the expansion of its freeway system. Los Angeles became a model for the modern, decentralized city, favoring suburban home ownership and automotive mobility while marginalizing those in urban, low-income areas reliant on public transportation. In fact, historian Eric Avila has noted that the construction of many of Los Angeles roadways depended on the destruction of low-income neighborhoods that were targeted as the ideal locations for urban freeways. This history is powerfully visualized in one panel in Judy Baca's epic mural, The Great Wall of Los Angeles, where she depicts the freeway as a serpent that menacingly coils around bodies and separates families. In a very literal way, the city became divided by its freeway system, as certain communities were prioritized over others.

Between 1976 and 1981, the National Endowment for the Arts commissioned artists across the country to document contemporary America—its cities, towns, and people. Hernandez participated in the project with his series Public Transit Areas (Long Beach Documentary Survey Project), 1979-1980 that documented life in Long Beach, California, located just south of Los Angeles. Hernandez captures urban scenes where passengers wait at bus stops. In each photograph of the series, the landscape is vertically divided into two planes. On the left side is the expanse of road, extending from the foreground until the vanishing point in the middle of the frame. The focal point of each photograph highlights the public transit passengers who seem to be waiting for a bus that will never come. Their expressions communicate a frustrated boredom, and their bodily postures feel tired and motionless. In Termino Ave. and Pacific Coast Highway, the passengers dispassionately meet the photographer's gaze while waiting, and their positions feel especially static when juxtaposed with the roadway. Moving too fast for even the camera to capture, cars zoom by on the left side of the landscape, appearing as blurred figures.

Although Hernandez's photographs do not depict the freeway system's identifiable spiral formations, the symbolism of the roadway is still overbearingly present within his photographs. There is undeniable tension between the passivity of his subjects—who are visibly left out of LA's car culture—and the fast-paced nature of the surrounding landscape. This particular photograph captures a view of the Pacific Coast Highway, long considered one of the state's most scenic roadways—a tourist attraction in and of itself—as it winds alongside the Pacific Ocean. Hernandez's alternative view challenges the positive connotations associated with this roadway and interjects the more difficult perspective of class inequality. Perhaps there are tourists in Hernandez's image obscured by the velocity of their blurred cars. The passengers who wait indefinitely, however, remain extremely visible in Hernandez's series, and the viewer is confronted with a new vision of the Pacific Coast Highway as a metaphor for class segregation.

It is easy to consider Anthony Hernandez's Long Beach series as documentary photography, primarily because the works illuminate the stark class differences that existed (and continue to exist) in Los Angeles. By including urban residents, as well as the landscapes that they inhabit, Hernandez also creates intimate portraits of LA itself where the city and its history are personified.

Anthony Hernandez's photographs are currently on view at SAAM in the exhibition, Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography through August 6, 2017.

Posted by Jeff on July 26, 2017 in American Art Here
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Throwback Thursday, Nam June Paik: Because Almost All of the Audience is Uninvited
July 20, 2017

It's Throwback Thursday! Here at Eye Level, we have decided it's a great opportunity to bring back some of our interesting posts from the past. Today is video art pioneer Nam June Paik's birthday. To celebrate, we're reposting former associate curator of film and media art, Michael Mansfield's post about our 2012 exhibition Nam June Paik: Global Visionary. Tonight, to share in the festivities in what would have been Paik's 85th birthday, Barbara London, Yale University's media arts critic and MoMA's former associate curator in the department of media and performance art, will give a talk, "What's Technology Got to Do With It?" The talk starts at 5:30 p.m. in SAAM's MacMillan Education Center and is free.


Piano Integral: View from entrance hall with the Ibach Piano destroyed by Joseph Beuys, at Exposition of Music--Electronic Television, 1963. Photo by Manfred Montwé © Manfred Montwé.

Against one wall in the Nam June Paik: Global Visionary exhibition, there stands a piano. It is an Alzinger-Brice upright piano, the evolution of a high culture instrument constructed for the middle class home. This one is disheveled, to say the least, exhibiting missing keys, protruding nails and broken wood; evidence of an enormous struggle. It is one of a number of artworks by Nam June Paik titled Prepared Piano from the 1963 exhibition Exposition of Music - Electronic Television. It appears to have been attacked, but it might be an injustice to read it simply as your average artist's struggle against cultural traditions. Perhaps it is much, much more optimistic than that.

Believe it or not, classical music has been the springboard for an enormous amount of radical innovation in the performing and visual arts. Representing the political and social superstructure of "high culture," rigid instrumentation and traditional compositions of orchestral music have repeatedly been the target for a creative class seeking to shatter conventions and shape new modes of expression.

At the turn of the 20th century, a "crisis of tonality" was identified, and composers and musicians began to systematically press the edges of the score. From sophisticated harmonics and complex chords to singular instruments and minor notes, composers assembled and deconstructed nearly every aspect of music in a conscious attempt to redefine musical arrangements from within the medium. The influential composer Arnold Schoenberg confronted the crisis and conceived of the "emancipation of dissonance" as a strategy to release at once composers and audiences from their harmonic bounds. Another composer, George Antheil, removed musicians altogether and wrote scores for mechanical pianos, airplane propellers and sirens, to be performed "as beautifully as an artist knows how." And then there was John Cage, who approached the piano, lifted the lid, and sat motionless in silence for 4 minutes, 33 seconds. These progressive responses to tradition in classical music would prove a watershed for a new generation of creative minds.

One of those creative minds was Nam June Paik. Though primarily known as a video artist, Paik's first interest was musical composition. This interest was immediately followed by, or perhaps simultaneous to, musical decomposition. Featured in the video documentary "The strange music of Nam June Paik," critics hailed him "as the world's most famous bad pianist." (If you watch the video, you'll notice that he is also not so good with a hammer). Paik studied composition and music in Japan at the University of Tokyo, where he wrote a thesis on Schoenberg. He continued his studies at the University of Munich and the Academy of Music Frieburg in Germany. There, his interest in revolutionary music making was encouraged by new relationships with Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Cage's influence on Paik was profound, enabling him through improvisational performances and "found sound." Paik embraced these new explorations of "chance" in his art making, whereby artists may set the stage for a performance, but relinquish control and allow the art to just happen.

[...] The beauty of moving theatre lies in this "surprise a priori," because almost all of the audience is uninvited, not knowing what it is, why it is, who is the composer, the player, organizer - or better speaking - organizer, composer, player. Paik, 1963

These concepts of improvisation and chance are critical to the understanding and experience of Paik's artwork. They are particularly apparent in Paik's Prepared Piano. In all its disheveled glory, Prepared Piano is an instrument that has been staged for a new sound experience. Augmented by the artist with buttons, toy cars, nails, coins, handles, motors, cans and an array of additional material, this piano anticipates an unpredictable concert. There's no telling what noise it might make when played. Rather than having been attacked for its perceived collusion with tradition, it has been prepared for an entirely new kind of concert. It is ironically optimistic in its composition, and therein lies the art.

Nam June Paik: Global Visionary runs through August 11, 2013.

Posted by Jeff on July 20, 2017 in American Art Here, Museums & Technology
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In This Case: Alma Thomas, An Artist from Washington, DC
July 13, 2017

In This Case is a series of ongoing posts on art in the Luce Foundation Center, a visible art storage facility at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that displays more than 3,000 pieces in sixty-four secure glass cases. This piece was written by Luce Center work-study student, Deysy Alvarado-Bonilla.
Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas' Red Abstraction

Alma Thomas, a DC artist and influential painter, once said, "I've never bothered painting the ugly things in I wanted something beautiful you could sit down and look at." She dedicated her life to doing just that.

Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, on September 22, 1891. Her family relocated to Washington, DC in 1907, to seek a better public school system and escape racial barriers in the South. From a young age, Thomas loved the visual arts. As an educator, artist, and the first African American graduate of Howard University’s fine arts program, Thomas dedicated her life to exploring the visual arts in the District and developing her own creativity.

Alma Thomas taught visual arts at Shaw Junior High in the District for 36 years, while also working on her own paintings. When she retired at age 69, she devoted her life entirely to painting. At the beginning of her career, she made representational paintings inspired by French artist, Henri Matisse. During her time at Howard, she learned about Color Field painting, led by DC artists Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland. This style, emphasized flat color as opposed to the more gestural brushstrokes found in Abstract Expressionism. Peaking Thomas' interest, it catapulted her work in a new direction.

Today, Thomas is recognized for creating dynamic paintings of nature, and occasionally, historical events such as the moon landing. She gained attention for her unique process and abstract style, making her a "force of the Washington Color School." Her process began with covering a canvas with light washes of watercolor or acrylic paint. Then, she would cover the stained canvas with thick, repetitive brushstrokes of vibrant color. She derived her inspiration from the natural world around her, like rays of sun flickering through the leaves in her garden. Often, her pieces resemble intricate, colorful mosaics.

Red Abstraction, on view in case 43B in the Luce Center, is somewhat different than her other work. Instead of creating repetitive small strokes of watercolor or acrylic paint, she used broader strokes of thick oil paint on the entirety of the piece. Referencing the colors of fall leaves, she used deep warm tones of red, green and brown. She used paler tones in the background and then painted over the canvas with bold color similar to the technique used in her other work. The viewer is drawn to the muted tones at the edges of the canvas. Thomas used color to create movement and expression within her artwork. Her innovation and technique made her a household name in the DC arts community.

As an African American woman artist, Thomas overcame many social barriers, and yet, when once asked if she considered herself a black artist she replied, "I am an American." She was a strong believer in "the infinite possibilities of human progress." At the age of 80, Thomas proved that prejudices against her age, race, and gender could not prevent her from pursuing her passion. She became the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1972, and the first African American woman to have her work included in the White House's permanent collection in 2009.

SAAM has more than two dozen paintings by Alma Thomas in its collection.

Posted by Bridget on July 13, 2017 in American Art Here, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Luce Unplugged: 5 Questions with Irreversible Entanglements
July 11, 2017

On Friday, July 14, escape the DC heat with a night full of jazz and rock-n-roll at our Summer Luce Unplugged Community Showcase featuring Irreversible Entanglements and Ian Svenonius. Irreversible Entanglements, a collaborative free jazz project, is made up of diverse members from all over the East Coast including Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York City. It also features spoken word artist, Camae Ayewa, also known as Moor Mother. We spoke with Luke Stewart, bassist of the band, to hear more about why their music is rooted deep within spoken word traditions and free jazz, and how their shared politics continues to push them to create powerful, inspiring music.

Irreversible Entanglements

Irreversible Entanglements. Photo courtesy of the band.

Eye Level: Tell us about Irreversible Entanglements.

Luke Stewart: This band was inspired by the New York Art Quartet (NYAQ) with Amiri Baraka, a key ensemble in the 1960s Avant-garde jazz movement in New York City. Many of the issues Baraka addressed in his poetry during that time are still current, sometimes even more deeply troubling. He wrote about the rebellion in Newark; today, Camae Ayewa writes about Ferguson. Baraka wrote "Black Dada Nihilismus," Ayewa writes about "Black Quantum Futurism." The music, while influenced by the so-called Free Jazz movement, is written and performed with contemporary thoughts and feelings. It is a dynamic that draws from the past, addresses the present, and imagines a better future.

EL: What messages do you hope to communicate through your music?

LS: The world of sound is one of the most potent forces for change. As an instrumentalist and especially as an improviser, the messages stem from a collection of thoughts and experience. When we come together as this group, our individualities are focused into this free-wheeling, intensely beautiful group rooted in the history of this music and poetry. How we came together and who we are as people makes our intense message clear.

EL: How would you describe the DC jazz community?

LS: There's so much I could say, but let me keep it simple. The community has been a strong aspect in my life, on and off the bandstand. We experience lessons on life and perspectives on music through conversations and comradery among elders and peers. While here in DC, my path has introduced me to many people who have contributed to the music. And I am proud to have developed here because of the city's deep and strong community, with its history and legacies.

Just like DC's storied and over-told punk scene, the jazz community here has been essential to the history of music. Due to economic pressures, access, and a myriad of other factors, jazz has been the most marginalized of the popular music communities. However, when looking at its history, from Miles Davis to Christian Scott, Thelonious Monk to Jason Moran, DC's jazz community continues to produce musicians who share the stage with the "greats" at the highest level. And often times, the "greats" find themselves here in our community.

EL: Who are your musical inspirations?

LS: So very many. As I mentioned before, the New York Art Quartet featuring Amiri Baraka. I was lucky enough to have had quite a few personal interactions with him through DC jazz radio station WPFW and a mentor who was his personal friend and business partner. He was one of the greatest minds of the 20th and 21st centuries, whose work continued to develop until his death in 2014. I was also fortunate enough to have seen John Tchicai perform a few times before his death a few years ago. I've had some beautiful interactions with Milford Graves, who is still an inspiring figure. Roswell Rudd is still around and performing in New York and elsewhere. Also bassist Reggie Workman, who continues to teach and perform around the world.

There's a beautiful film profiling NYAQ, made by my friend Alan Roth called, "The Breath Courses Through Us." I introduced it when it premiered at the Library of Congress. There's also a very limited box set profiling the group, called "Call it Art," compiled by scholar Ben Young. Both of these together offer a great look into the group and their importance in the greater history of jazz. To me they are a great representation of the musical innovations of the '60s and continue to influence my work today.

EL: How do you foster each other's creativity?

LS: We all have individual paths in music and in life. When we come together our openness helps to create a synergy that hopefully gives the experiencer something to feel.

Hear Irreversible Entanglements play live this Friday, July 14th, and check out more details on the Luce Center's Facebook page. During the performance, enjoy free beer tastings from Port City Brewery, among other libations and snacks from a cash bar. The Luce Unplugged Community Showcase is presented in part by Washington City Paper.

Posted by Madeline on July 11, 2017 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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SAAM Arcade: Let the Video Games Begin
July 6, 2017

Kogod Courtyard

Gamers fill SAAM's Kogod Courtyard, the site of this year's SAAM Arcade.

SAAM is turning into a video game arcade! On Saturday, August 5 and Sunday, August 6, anyone can participate in game building workshops, hear musicians performing music inspired by classic Nintendo and Sega themes, and play more than 100 games. This free two-day takeover includes classic arcade games as well as 40 fresh indie games created by independent developers and students. One hundred games to try—including pinball, virtual reality, and even card games—might be an overwhelming prospect. So, we tested every new game in the Indie Showcase and have a few suggestions to fit almost every appetite:



Scene from Perception

When you want to be scared with a side of story, action, and wit: Perception.

Crafted by a team of veteran game developers (BioShock, BioShock Infinite, and Dead Space), Perception offers a fresh take on first person narrative games. Play through the lens of Cassie, a blind woman, as she explores the mansion haunting her dreams. Engage in a deadly game of hide-and-seek with relentless enemies. Travel back through history to exorcise your own nightmares.

Play if: You enjoy the "at the edge of your seat" tension and scares in games like Bioshock. Don't take our word for it, watch a playthrough:

Burly Men at Sea

Burly Men at Sea

Burly Men at Sea

When you're drawn to beautiful animation and dream of escaping the ordinary: Burly Men at Sea.

Burly Men at Sea is a folktale about a trio of large, bearded fishermen who step away from the ordinary to seek adventure. Set in the waters of early 20th-century Scandinavia, the game's story branches through a series of encounters with creatures from folklore. You play as storyteller and wayfinder, shaping the narrative around three ungainly heroes as they set sail for the unknown. Burly Men at Sea is distinct for its visual style, whimsical soundtrack, innovative draggable viewport mechanic, and use of brief choice-driven journeys to tell multiple unique stories.

Play if: You seek a way to combine the simplicity of Scandinavian design with choose-your-own-adventure. Get a feel for the game by watching a playthrough:

Tiler Teller

Tiler Teller

Tiler Teller

When you and your kids are hooked on tablets and want a way to interact with that touch screen through storytelling and a cuddly toy: Tiler Teller.

Built by students at the University of Southern California, Tiler Teller mixes together digital play and tangible toys. With a felt-crafted puzzle cube as the game's analog controller, this game combines craft art with digital design. While reading stories for children, parents also help them solve puzzles, learn numbers, and practice color recognition abilities.

Play if: You are a kid, have kids (or are a kid at heart). Not sure what to think? Watch the trailer:

We're looking forward to seeing you at our SAAM Arcade, Saturday, August 5 and Sunday, August 6!

Posted by Amy on July 6, 2017 in Museums & Technology, Post It
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