Thursday, July 29, 2010

July 28, 2010: Washington - The Freer and Arthur M Sackler Galleries of Asian Art

Still hiding out from the heat, so I planned today's trip to be very close to a subway station. I got out at the Smithsonian stop and went to the very first museum, The Freer Gallery of Art. There was a wide-ranging collection of Asian art: Chinese scroll paintings, Japanese pottery, intricately patterned Islamic objects. I found the very wide and tall panoramic landscapes created in the Chinese brush paintings and Japanese screens very interesting - there's a distortion of perspective somewhat similar to that which happens when you take panoramic photographs, but these were created long before the invention of the photographic lens.

The Freer led, through its basement level, to the Arthur M Sackler Gallery. This gallery is almost entirely underground, going down three levels, with only a small glass-topped entryway aboveground. An interesting artwork hangs down the stairwell all three levels - a long chain of calligraphic metalwork, each of the twenty pieces representing the work monkey in a different language (and all in reference to a fable of 20 monkeys who hung in a chain trying to reach the moon, only to discover it was a reflection in the water at the end).

Following the Sackler there was another underground concourse level, with an exhibition of contemporary art - it was grouped around themes of illness, disability and treatment - either in subject matter or in the artists' own lives. There were some great pieces, and an interesting diversity. The most remarkable was a painting by Sunaura Taylor - a huge (80 x 120 inches), rich, lush painting of chickens crammed into cages on the back of a truck - such a startling contrast between the classical style and the sad, contemporary subject matter. It had a precision level of detail that seemed so precise at a distance, but up close it was very loosely and boldly painted. And then I read on the label that the artist, because of her disability, paints everything with a brush held in her mouth. I'm in awe - this would be a hugely physical effort to pull off for anyone, due to its size and the need to constantly check the balance between the close-up and distance effects of the painting style.

Photos: Chinese scroll painting 'The Southern Journey', 1505, by Tang Min; Syrian Globe, mid-15th century; Xu Bing's 'Monkeys Grasp for the Moon', 2004; Christina Casebeer's 'Touch', 2006, using antique crocheted gloves; Sunaura Taylor's 'Chicken Truck' 2007, 80 x 120" and detail

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