Princeton Art Museum Grab Bag

I’ve visited the Princeton Art Museum a couple times over the past few months and, while I haven’t had the ganas to write a full post about each exhibition I saw, I did still have some thoughts. So what follows is a quick grab bag post about a handful of exhibitions and installations which caught my eye or provoked a reaction.

Epic Tales from India

Aniruddha Is Abducted by Usha’s Handmaiden, Nepal, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, folio: 37.6 × 55 cm; painting: 33 × 50 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

Aniruddha Is Abducted by Usha’s Handmaiden, Nepal, ca. 1800. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, folio: 37.6 × 55 cm; painting: 33 × 50 cm. The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

The Epic Tales show was super-detailed and, in many ways, was more like seeing an illustrated book than a collection of paintings. This was one of the most narrative-heavy shows I’ve seen and even despite all that I was glad to have a working knowledge of most of the tales on display. There still wasn’t enough room to have proper descriptions of the stories.

The paintings are wonderfully intricate and colorful with lots of small detailwork to inspect as you’re expected to read the story through the images. I particularly like how images from different regions are compared and how you can see distinctions in regional style while still seeing the same story.

I also can’t help but think that it would be very interesting to structure an exhibition of “Epic Tales from Europe” which focused on the narrative and functional aspects of what museums traditionally display as “fine art.” Much of the European tradition of religious art is explicitly about telling the stories in the Bible or the lives of the saints yet those narratives are almost absent from the museums now.*

*I’ve had to explain to people before—particularly with the saints—what it is they’re looking at since the museum texts assume a level of cultural knowledge that no longer (if it ever) existed.

Beading African History

Yoruba artist Ifa Divination Bag (apo ileke), 20th century Colored beads, cloth, and leather bag: h. 25.2 cm., w. 26.9 cm., d. 2.0 cm. (9 15/16 x 10 9/16 x 13/16 in.) strap: l. 94.0 cm. (37 in.) Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951 Place made: Nigeria 1998-733

Yoruba artist
Ifa Divination Bag (apo ileke), 20th century
Colored beads, cloth, and leather
bag: h. 25.2 cm., w. 26.9 cm., d. 2.0 cm. (9 15/16 x 10 9/16 x 13/16 in.)
strap: l. 94.0 cm. (37 in.)
Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951
Place made: Nigeria
1998-733

I loved the Beading African History installation. It acknowledges how beads and beading reflected a global trade in beads and supplies and also used the beadwork to compare and contrast art across multiple countries and regions. It’s not as cool as the Vlisco show but it’s working along the same lines.

Given how the Princeton Museum has a tendency to lump all of “Africa” together in the basement where all countries and all time periods get flattened into a generic “tribal” presentation, seeing it embracing a medium which demonstrates the commonalities through the lens of trade and colonialism was a nice change of pace.

Echoes of One Hand Clapping

Japanese, Meiji period, 1868–1912 Kobayashi Kiyochika 小林清親, 1847–1915 Published by Matsuki Heikichi 松木平吉 Private Onoguchi Tokuji Destroying the Gate at Jinzhou, 1894 Woodblock print (ōban tate-e triptych); ink and color on paper each sheet: 34.9 x 23.5 cm. (13 3/4 x 9 1/4 in.) overall: 34.9 x 70.3 cm. (13 3/4 x 27 11/16 in.) Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Japanese Print Collection Place made: Japan 2008-122 a-c

Japanese, Meiji period, 1868–1912
Kobayashi Kiyochika 小林清親, 1847–1915
Published by Matsuki Heikichi 松木平吉
Private Onoguchi Tokuji Destroying the Gate at Jinzhou, 1894
Woodblock print (ōban tate-e triptych); ink and color on paper
each sheet: 34.9 x 23.5 cm. (13 3/4 x 9 1/4 in.)
overall: 34.9 x 70.3 cm. (13 3/4 x 27 11/16 in.)
Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Japanese Print Collection
Place made: Japan
2008-122 a-c

Minor White. The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Pultneyville, New York) October 10, 1957 Gelatin silver print image: 18.5 × 23 cm (7 5/16 × 9 1/16 in.) sheet: 20.8 × 25.8 cm (8 3/16 × 10 3/16 in.) x1980-3278

Minor White.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Pultneyville, New York)
October 10, 1957
Gelatin silver print
image: 18.5 × 23 cm (7 5/16 × 9 1/16 in.)
sheet: 20.8 × 25.8 cm (8 3/16 × 10 3/16 in.)
x1980-3278

Ugh. Echoes of One Hand Clapping is one of the laziest exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Yes it’s great to see all of Minor White’s Sound of one Hand Clapping sequence on display. But to use that as a jumping off point for an entire exhibition of “sound in Asian art”? Please.

It’s a cliched title with a surface-level understanding of asianness being used in a way which is directly contradictory to the koan’s meaning. It does a disservice to White’s photos and doesn’t tell us anything about the rest of the artwork on display.

And yes, the ten photos are good and I enjoy the sequencing. It’s always nice to be reminded that photos aren’t supposed to be viewed as single images. I was however far from the proper state of mind when I looked at them. That they’re hung a little high, there’s a small counter in the way so you can’t look closely, and the light is pretty dim didn’t help either.

Revealing Pictures

Edmund Clarke Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012

Edmund Clarke
Negative Publicity #035 (Detail from the kitchen of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site), 2012

Pieter Hugo Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

Pieter Hugo
Portrait #1, Rwanda, 2014, from the series 1994, 2014-16

I had to walk through Revealing Pictures twice. The way the museum has chosen to display the photos gave me an uneasy sense of treating black bodies as a form of ruin porn where an aesthetic appeal is used to gloss over the underlying trauma in the image. This is specifically a problem with the hanging and wall text and is not at all a critique of the images themselves. The installation over-emphasises the underlying trauma and spends a lot of time trumpeting the presence of non-western, non-white subject matter.

The show however is not about this at all and is instead both much simpler and much more my kind of thing.

While there’s no catalog, the small saddlestitched handout includes a short bio of the collector* The bio saves the entire show. He’s not interested in trauma, he’s found himself interested in understated portraits and landscapes which require additional context to understand. And he’s been smart enough to recognize that instead of collecting one image per artist, collecting a handful of images from each series/artist explains the context better than any wall text.

*As well as a picklist for the show which is the kind of awesome thing every museum should hand out.

There’ve been occasional rants in photoland about the increase in conceptual photography and how photos are no longer about just the image. I find myself rolling my eyes at these rants because you can’t escape context no matter how hard you try. This small show makes the case for context in even the most straightforward images and for recognizing how much photography relies on that information for its power.*

*Two things I’ve thought about before on this blog both in a general sense and in terms of a specific exhibition on context.

Halloween

One kiddo dressed as Clark Kent but with Superman underneath. The other dressed as Batman but with Bruce Wayne underneath. Yes they’ve already figured out which is the disguise which is the true identity.

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Also in Philadelphia

A quick roundup of other highlights from my visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art after looking at Mexican Modernism and Vlisco.

Jitish Kallat

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Jitish Kallat’s* Covering Letter is an interesting counterpoint to all the anti-fascist art on display in Mexican Modernism. I appreciate the ideal of appealing to peace and compassion in the face of hatred and violence. But I also like the ambiguity of the mist being both an indicator of the inability of one party to receive and understand that message and a reflection of how maybe words and compassion might not be sufficient. As with the anti-fascist artwork, Kallat’s piece is sadly extremely relevant to today’s reality.

*I’ve previously seen another of his installations in San José

This installation also really really messed with my “don’t touch the artwork” instincts. You’re supposed to walk on the projected light. You’re supposed to walk through the mist. But I found myself avoiding doing both and instead blundered into the wall a couple times until I got over that mental block.

Oki Sato

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This was actually a design installation featuring three designers. I wasn’t really feeling it with Faye Toogood* or Zanini de Zanine,** but I really liked Oki Sato’s work and the way he’s really pushing both the technical properties of how things are built as well as playing with how products are used and interact with each other.

*Her work reminded me of Droog Design but with only a superficial understanding of what made a lot of Droog’s things so smart. But I did really like the idea of listing everyone who made the clothing on the tag.

**Nice reclaimed wood furniture and very nice to see some sustainability being brought to design. But I wasn’t struck by much beyond the materials sourcing. The pieces were nice but sort of forgettable.

His dishes are great, especially in how they recognize that people do more than just eat with them. They’re meant to literally be played with and they bring a smile to my face. I especially love his chairs though. Some, like the fadeout chair, are possibly too clever. But others, such as the splinter chair, result in a complete reimagining of what’s possible with laminates, wooden rods, and joinery.

In most cases though the result is both extremely subtle while also being an in-your-face flourish. I’m not sure how he manages to do that but I’m impressed.

New South Asian Galleries

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After my experience at The Met last year, I’ve become increasingly suspicious of these encyclopedic museums—especially when it comes to art from non-white cultures. Rather than walking through “The Basement” though I was pleasantly surprised by the redone South Asian galleries and how they’re as much about the evolution of how the museum has treated the artwork as they are about the artwork itself.

In room after room, there was wall text or an interactive display about where the art came from, how it was acquired, how it used to be displayed, and what previous curators believed the goal of the museum should be with respect to the artwork. This became especially interesting given how the Philadelphia Museum went through a “collect entire rooms” phase and many of the galleries in this wing are literally entire rooms which the museum acquired.

The information about the temple hall is especially good because not only does it have a very interesting history in terms of acquisition and display* but also serves as the inspiration for acquiring other rooms to display alongside the hall.

*Originally purchased from a rubble pile, re-assembled in Philly, have gone though multiple conceptions of light levels and scholarship into how they were originally experienced.

I wish more museums follow Philadelphia’s example here. As interesting as the artwork is in terms of what it tells us about the culture it came from. the way that we’ve acquired and chosen to display things says a lot about the way our culture has evolved too.

Vlisco

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I went to Philadelphia to see Mexican Modernism. However, I came back unable to stop talking about the Vlisco show. It was one of the better shows I’ve seen in general and packing everything into a single gallery resulted in a wonderful density of subjects to cover.

First, the actual fabric itself is a fantastic illustration of globalization. This particular batik technique originated in Java. It got taken to the Netherlands by Dutch colonists where the manufacturing process became automated. The resulting fabric then got taken by the Dutch to different African countries for market. The resulting fabrics are both authentically African but also truly international.

The Dutch sold different patterns in different countries so, while there are similarities in terms everything being Vlisco, there are also distinctions between countries and the exhibition does a good job at flagging how those different patterns came to represent different countries.

At the same time, Vlisco also sold some of these patterns to The West as resortwear. So where within Africa a specific pattern corresponds to a specific country, outside of Africa westerners are encouraged to see the patterns as “African.”

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One of the fun things with the Vlisco patterns is how they get repeatedly reworked and referenced. It’s not just that a pattern gets printed and reprinted in multiple colorways—which can look completely different even if the pattern itself is the same—instead elements of the old, classic patterns are sampled years later.

So the roundels which represent the wheels on a bus pattern become a pattern of circular devices. Or the swallows in a pattern or replaced by airplanes. Or maybe the swallows themselves get sampled and turned into a tesselation. The designs and devices are in a constant state of remixing—giving the entire industry a sense of vitality and energy.

The show wasn’t just a collection of patterns over time. That would’ve been easy and obvious and kind of boring. Instead all the remixes were paired and grouped with the their sources so that the relationships could be called out and viewed. The point isn’t just the history of the fabric, it’s in how that history is constantly self-referential.

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Viewing just the patterns and how they reference each other would’ve been a decent show in its own right. But there were also a ton of dresses on display which took the entire room to a different level since many of the dresses used prints which were on display.

Being able to see the flat printed patterns makes looking at the dresses a wonderful puzzle where you can figure out how the fabric is used based on the way the print shows up in the garment. And the designers do absolutely insane things in how they embrace the printed patterns.

Some of the dresses rotate the warp/weft to get the right print alignment. Others creating the cutting/seam pattern around the print itself so as to avoid certain elements—typically words or lettering. Many of the dresses have cut the fabric along the lines of the print itself so that instead of a straight seam the edge of the garment is irregular and the fabric becomes its own trim.

The dresses also showed exactly how different the patterns can look depending on the colors they’re printed in. Again, as with the patterns on the wall, the dresses which use the same print were displayed next to each other. However, because the garments are so different, I could be looking at two dresses for minutes and not realize that they were using the same print. It’s not enough that they different when one is printed in cyan/red/navy and the other is pink/red/maroon, the resulting difference in character also suggests completely different styles of dress.

With all that, the show still managed to find space in the gallery to have a large display about the process of dying the fabric. I love seeing these in general but this display used fabric samples which were the same size as every other sample on the walls. Instead of being an afterthought or a concession, it was an integral part of the show.

Not only did the process information show how the fabric is printed, it showed the different ways that variants could be produced. It’s simple to think of different colorways as just being using different inks in each step. But steps can be omitted or added as well and the combination of these differences opens up a huge number of variants of the same print.

Anyway, history, technology, design, culture, marketing, evolution, process, fashion, fabrication, color, and pattern. All in one room. All working together so the density of information makes sense. This show was great. Too bad there wasn’t a catalog.

National Zoo

A trip to the National Zoo. Between the subway trip to the zoo, walking from the station to the zoo entrance, and making sure the kids had enough gas left in the tank to get back to the subway afterwards we maybe got through half the zoo. It’s nice though, where the Los Angeles Zoo is spread out in a way which feels discouraging because the exhibits are smallish and far apart, the DC zoo feels like it just has enormous animal enclosures. This might be the first zoo I’ve been to where most of the enclosures feel like they have multiple viewing areas. And it’s great because this means that the animals are always within view.

Seeing the Giant Pandas was a particular thrill. I remember waiting forever to “see” them when they visited San Francisco back in the mid-1980s. What a disappointment. After waiting in the line the pandas were hiding behind the bamboo and I maybe saw a paw. In DC though, the enclosure is fantastic and the pandas are happy to just hang out and chew on bamboo out in the open.

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Udvar-Hazy Center

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In October we took a trip to the Udvar-Hazy wing of the National Air and Space Museum. Since I was with the kids I didn’t get a chance to properly explore it. But it’s a great museum for kids since it’s full of big things which they understand. And concepts like “fastest plane ever” or “space travel” are things that impress them. The hanger is huge and it’s indeed a lot of fun to see so many of these iconic aircraft in the flesh.

While some of the important smaller artifacts are in the DC museum—Mercury 7, Apollo 11,* Spirit of St. Louis, and the Wright Flyer—there’s not enough room to house the larger aircraft. And it’s fantastic to be able to see things like a Blackbird, the Enola Gay, the Space Shuttle Discovery, or a Concorde. In the same way the you can only really grok the insanity/bravery of the early astronauts by looking at how small the capsules they were in, you have to also see how huge things like the Space Shuttle are.

*Actually, when I wandered through there in December after seeing Ragnar Kjartansson, Nation to Nation, and Horace Poolaw shows, Apollo 11 was not on display and is supposedly being shipped to Udvar Hazy. I’m curious what’s going to become of the DC museum as more and more iconic planes end up in Virginia. I didn’t write about the December visit because it was mainly just seeing the highlights of the collection. But I can say that the New Moon Rises exhibition was kind of neat.

I particularly like being able to see the textures and details of the aircrafts from how the Space Shuttle is so many different colors of white to all the different panels and things on all the airplanes’ surfaces. When I imagine airplanes I imagine them with sleek seamless surfaces even though I know better.

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Horace Poolaw

Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944. 45UFL14 © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944.

Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1947. © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1947.

Horace Poolaw, “Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa),” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930.

“Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa),” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930.

Left to right: Juanita Daugomah Ahtone (Kiowa), Evalou Ware Russell (center), Kiowa Tribal Princess, and Augustine Campbell Barsh (Kiowa) in the American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941. © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

The American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941.

After seeing Nation to Nation, I checked out the Horace Poolaw show. Poolaw photographed his Oklahoma community for about five decades in the mid-20th century. While he operated a bit as a professional photographer doing weddings and funerals and other big events his photographs are all effectively insider images. They’re both of his community and for consumption by that community alone.

The community is one which most of us typically see only through the white gaze. The photos aren’t actively dealing with self-representation issues. They document and are an archive of people who society tends to ignore.

We rarely get to see Indians as regular people. This allows and encourages society to think of them as no longer existing in today’s world. A lot of this caused by the way that the concept of “authenticity” is linked with Indian regalia and appearances. Being Indian is either a very specific physical stereotype of dark skin and sharp features or it’s a costume which can be appropriated by anyone.

It’s weird and unexpected to see Indian clothing mixed with western clothing or settings. So seeing Indians dressed in regalia while driving or posing by modern cars just like any other mid-century American would pose is striking. The same goes with seeing soldiers wearing war bonnets with their military uniforms. Poolaw’s photos though are full of this kind of thing and we get used to seeing the mixing and matching. Even in what seems to be a straight photograph of two women in their regalia standing in front of a teepee we notice how the younger one has a modern haircut and makeup.

All too often museums present Indian culture* as a stagnant craft which exists outside of the influence of other cultures. In Poolaw’s photos we see how his culture is changing over the decades, especially with how opening up the Kiowa reservation to non-Kiowa settlers resulted in a culture where everyone is blending their heritages together. There are different Indian Nations intermarrying. There’s the whole Indians serving in the US Armed Forces and celebrating homecomings and departures with traditional ceremonies. It’s a lot of fun to see and is a necessary reminder of how all of cultures are living and growing things.

*Or any non-white culture really.

Historically, the photos are also very interesting because they cover the time from the Indian Citizenship Act to the Indian Civil Rights Act. This is a time period in which Indian Nations gain both more autonomy for themselves to eventually practice their religions and traditions as well as more rights within the United States as US citizens with protected rights.

Poolaw specifically covers the development of Indian autonomy with his photos of the events which eventually developed into the what we now know of as American Indian Pow Wows. These photos work as a celebration of being Indian, archive of how the growth of acceptance of celebrating that by general American culture, and an uneasy critique of how the growing acceptance of powwow events has also lead them to be commodities.

His photos of the participants are wonderful relaxed photos of people who are at ease with the photographer and trust that their image won’t be exploited. His photos of the increased acceptance of these events are similarly fun to see as the people are increasingly able to operate in a mixed culture. His photos of the crowds and photographers who are watching the events though demonstrate his unease with how, as the culture is able to express itself more, it’s also increasingly accessible for consumption.*

*As someone who attends and photographs these events these photos also serve as a warning to me about how I should respect the space and the participants.

While it’s good that these cultural events no longer have to be practiced in a small private setting, the big events risk taking them from being for the participants and centering the audience instead. Poolaw, by being both an Indian and a photographer is able to straddle those worlds.