Luce Artist Talk: Five Questions with Kathryn Thibault
July 11, 2016

Each month, we partner with our neighbors up the street at Flashpoint Gallery to present our local artist talk series. This month, Kathryn Lynch Thibault joins us to talk about her most recent exhibition and works that inspire her in our Luce Foundation Center. Thibault works across media forms, creating pieces that are not only personal to her, but also challenge how the viewer thinks about common, everyday objects and gestures. Luce Artist Talks are presented in collaboration with CulturalDC.


Kathryn Lynch Thibault's This is My Garden (detail)

Eye Level: Your exhibition at Flashpoint, Cultivation/Harvest/Neglect, uses the concept of cultivation and gardening to explore connection and mortality. Why gardens?

Kathryn Thibault: Originally my interest stemmed from looking at garden tools and their relationship to a long-term concern of mine: the tactile connections between the body and mechanical elements. I found space of cultivation a rich area of conceptual exploration, blending process, bodies, growth, and decay. So I decided to take some of my previous material and compositional interests and use them to build work from this new starting point.

EL: How much does personal experience and memory feature in your work?

KT: Because my studio process tends to be intuitive, they factor heavily in my work, though not always in a way that is obvious to me during the process. I am most happy when my work links directly to my own experience, in a way that feels personal but also will resonate with viewers.

EL: How has your art or practice changed over time?

KT: My focus has gone through several major shifts, from technical theater to glass and ceramics in undergrad, then to metal, interactive, and performance work in graduate school. I then transitioned into doing a lot of work in graphics, 3D modeling, and web-based technologies, both for art and non-art purposes. Then I circled back to more physically-based work, both drawing and painting, as well as vellum and mixed media, ephemeral, wall-based sculpture.

EL: What inspires you? How will you decide what to do next?

KT: Frequently, I find inspiration in some small element, such as a texture sample or a specific object in a context that connects to my personal experience (like the frame of a field cultivator). A number of works have actually come out of ideas I've encountered while reading, both fiction and nonfiction. Although I do love working with vellum and more temporary installations, future pieces will still rely on small components but feature more permanent objects. I intend to come back to some of the ideas I've pursued in this show and other recent exhibitions in glass, a material I have always planned on returning to at some point.

EL: What experience has had the biggest impact on your work?

KT: Most recently it would be the four years I spent as a resident artist at the Arlington Arts Center. An amazing community of artists and staff and protected time and space to work made it possible for me to continue to make art at a time when I had considered giving it up. I left the Arlington Arts Center last year due to a family move to Seattle, but the experience had a significant impact on my development as an artist.

Thibault's talk will be at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 16 and her installation will be on view at Flashpoint Gallery until August 13. After her talk in the Luce Center, attendees may visit the gallery with Thibault to continue the conversation there.

Posted by Bridget on July 11, 2016 in Five Question Interviews, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center, Lectures on American Art
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Light Fantastic: Gabriel Dawe in Conversation
July 6, 2016


Gabriel Dawe, Plexus A1, 2015 Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Courtesy Conduit Gallery, Photo by Ron Blunt

The final program in the WONDER series of artist talks featured Gabriel Dawe in conversation with Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Renwick Gallery. Dawe's Plexus A1, one of the nine room-filling installations commissioned for the exhibition, spins a new riff on the theme of alchemy: it turns thread into light. The work of art is comprised of nearly sixty miles of sewing thread, yet in Dawe's hands, the end result is a tactile rainbow prism that has delighted hundreds of thousands of vistors during the exhibition's run.

Dawe's work also has a deeper biographical resonance, stemming from his boyhood in Mexico, and calls into play gender and identity issues. (for bonus points, "plexus" is defined as a branching network of vessels or nerves within the body). His grandmother would teach his sister to embroider, but because he was a boy in a macho society, he was not taught. In his twenties, Dawe learned how to embroider, and began to work with textiles and thread. His artworks, which he refers to as "ethereal structures that [are] reminiscent of light," are meditative installations that entice visitors to take a closer look.

WONDER, including Plexus A1, closes this Sunday, July 10, 2016. In case you missed Dawe's talk, you can watch our archived webcast.

We now have a robust library of WONDER videos featuring the artists talking about their works and often giving us a behind-the-scenes look at their process. Check out the nearly two dozen WONDER-related videos on our YouTube Channel's playlist.

Posted by Howard on July 6, 2016 in American Art Here, American Craft
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Making Connections at the Renwick: Everything Clicks
June 30, 2016


Debra Baxter, Devil Horns Crystal Brass Knuckles (Lefty), 2015, quartz crystal and sterling silver. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the artist in honor of Joanna and David Baxter © 2015, Debra Baxter

The Renwick's reinstallation of more than eighty objects from its permanent collection—Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery—brings together artists working in media as diverse as vinyl, denim, quartz, and glass. It also contrasts the return of old favorites such as Ghost Clock by Wendell Castle and Box of Falling Stars by Lenore Tawney with recent acquisitions by a new generation of craft artists who are shaking up traditional notions of craft by blending new ideas with new technology. In selecting both pioneering and contemporary pieces, Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Renwick, explores the underlying current of craft as a balancing, humanistic force in the face of an ever-more efficiency-driven, virtual world.

Connections is designed to break free of traditional exhibition layout based on chronology or material. Instead, the exhibition seeks to connect objects by stories and relationships, much the same way that clicking on a hyperlink help us make connections online. The exhibition does away with hierarchical distinctions and the idea of the curator's voice as absolute authority, instead presenting works that engender ever-evolving associations and interpretations. Visitors are encouraged to find their own path through a vast network of possibilities that highlight explicit connections as well as subtle, unexpected resonances among the artworks on view.

"Craft objects do not exist in a vacuum," Atkinson said. "Each artwork tells many stories, and each is made even more interesting through relationships to other objects and ideas. As that object continues to develop meanings and spawn questions through contact with other artworks, it remains vital in a changing world."

Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery opens July 1 and remains on view indefinitely.

Posted by Howard on June 30, 2016 in American Art Here, American Craft
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Romaine Brooks: Body of Work
June 28, 2016

In honor of the current exhibition The Art of Romaine Brooks, eminent scholars Cassandra Langer, Sylvia Kahan, and Helen Langa, joined SAAM's chief curator Virginia Mecklenburg, for a discussion that shed new light onto the artist's life and times. Romaine Brooks emerged as an impressive figure who flouted conventional roles for women and created a unique persona, aesthetic, and body of work.

Cassandra Langer, art historian and author of Romaine Brooks: A Life, was the first speaker on the program. She has devoted the majority of her professional career to discovering and uncovering the artist and asking the question: Who was Romaine Brooks? As a woman artist, lesbian, and longtime partner of American ex-pat Natalie Barney, Brooks flourished in the years between the two world wars. As Langer described, "She stands alongside Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein as a major participant in the intellectual and artistic life of her times and beyond." Langer presented a fully realized portrait of the artist, placing her in the context of her times as well as our own.

The second speaker, Sylvia Kahan, professor of music at CUNY College of Staten Island is a pianist as well as a musicologist. She devoted her talk to the vibrant cultural life in Paris that was thriving in Romaine's day, especially the salon hosted by Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse Edmond de Polignac, a musical patron and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune (and, incidentally, one of twenty-four children sired by Isaac Singer). She was also, briefly Romaine's lover and the subject of a painting by Brooks that is still missing.

The third and final speaker, Helen Langa, associate professor of art history at American University discussed American lesbian artists from 1935-1950, including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, as well as less well-known couples on this side of the pond, such as Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle Devaux Clements, printmakers and life partners. "It was not just in Sapphic Paris that American lesbian artists created successful professional careers," Langa told us. Her talk should be de rigueur for all students of art history and gender studies.

What emerged from the afternoon's presentations was a more complex and spirited portrait of Romaine, as a woman, artist, and lover, fully engaged in life. Though she titled her unpublished memoir, No Pleasant Memories, and often worked in a muted palette of hushed grays, blacks, and white, she wrote in her journal, "A day without laughter was not worth living." Who knew? The discussions also provided insights into gender, queer studies, and lesbian artists and affections in the first half of the twentieth century.

What also emerged was the idea that there are paintings by Brooks that have yet to be discovered. It has long been assumed that Brooks stopped painting for more than thirty years before, at the age of 87, completing one final canvas of her friend Uberto Stozzi, included in the exhibition. New research, however, presented during the discussion revealed that Brooks's letters from those decades included requests for more and more art supplies. If this is the case, then where are the missing paintings (in addition to the portrait of Winnaretta Singer)? It's a mystery that scholars are continuing to unravel.

If you missed the panel discussion watch our webcast:

View an online gallery of Romaine Brooks's work in the exhibition. The Art of Romaine Brooks remains on view through October 2, 2016.

Posted by Howard on June 28, 2016 in American Art Here, Lectures on American Art
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Conserving Duane Hanson's Woman Eating
June 23, 2016

Hanson Conservation Lecture

Contract conservator Jamie Gleason speaks to SAAM's docents about the conservation of Duane Hanson's Woman Eating

For a decade, Duane Hanson's life-like sculpture Woman Eating has fascinated SAAM visitors. With funding provided by the Smithsonian's Women's Committee, conservators were able to research, examine, document, and treat this work for future generations to continue to enjoy.

Duane Hanson created hyperrealistic sculptures based on casts of his family, friends, and models. He painted these fiberglass and polyester resin casts and dressed them with clothing and accessories from secondhand stores. Although Hanson's sculptures elicit humorous double takes from museum visitors, they also offer profound and witty commentaries on lives often overlooked in our society.

Hanson's sculptures pose challenges to long-term display because their various media require diverse approaches to cleaning. Even though light, humidity, and temperature are carefully monitored in the museum, over time, Woman Eating accrued a fine layer of grime, her clothes and hair were covered in dust, and various parts of the work were in need treatment.

Woman Eating

Duane Hanson's Woman Eating

Conservators carefully examined and documented Hanson's artwork in order to understand the best way to clean each part of the piece. For example, Hanson wanted the grocery bag to look used, but the paper became brittle with age, and the original tear widened with the pressure of the bag's contents. While aging cannot be reversed, conservators were able to stabilize the paper to prevent further deterioration and mended part of the tear. The grocery bag is only one component of the work though. Hanson employed a wide range of materials to give Woman Eating its complexity, including fiberglass, artificial and animal leather, napkins, metal, plastic, hair (likely synthetic), salt and pepper shakers with presumed salt and pepper, cotton shoe string, polyester resin, rhinestones, newsprint, paper, twine, fabric, oil paint, cardboard, and glass. Conservators had to perform extensive research on the complex and varied materials of the piece to understand how they aged and the best way to clean the work while protecting it from any chemicals or cleaning techniques that might cause damage.

Conservator Jamie Gleason will present a free lecture about this conservation project on Wednesday, June 29th at 4:00 p.m. in SAAM's MacMillan Education Center.

Posted by Abigail on June 23, 2016 in American Art Here, Conservation at American Art
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