Tag Archives: exhibits

Angels, Demons, Savages: A Tale of Art and Culture


Last week I attended a gallery talk at the Phillips Collection here in Washington. The Philips is a private art gallery with a focus on modern art, one of the first private museums to open to the public in the US.

Their current special exhibition hits very close to home — quite literally. The exhibit explores the relationship between three mid-twentieth-century modern artists, Jackson Pollock, Jean Dubuffet, and Alfonso Ossorio. Ossorio, the lesser known of the three, was Filipino-American.

Original image by Renee Alfonso

The relationship between Pollock and Dubuffet is somewhat known throughout art history, but somehow Ossorio doesn’t get as much mention. Some of the interpretation in the exhibit cites his focus on being more of a collector as a probable cause of this oversight. The narrative brought to life a cross-cultural story that spanned continents, cultures, and the cultural phenomenon that was the abstract expressionist movement.


Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950. Jackson Pollock 1950.
Image courtesy National Gallery of Art

The exhibit format itself was a traditional art gallery fine art show, with the large and dynamic abstract expressionist pieces hung on white walls. In some instances smaller works were grouped together, but the larger works seemed to be the clear focus, and in some ways represented the overarching idea of the exhibit most clearly.

During a special night event at the museum, I attended a gallery talk given by one of the curators at the Phillips. While the talk was insightful however, I felt that it had too much of a formalist approach – focusing too much on the technicalities of fine art practice and art in itself, with little else interpretation.


Red Family Alfonso Ossorio 1951. Image courtesy Phillips Collection.

Paysage métapsychique (Metaphysical landscape) Jean Dubuffet 1952.
Image courtesy Phillips Collection.

That was perhaps the greatest unease I felt about the exhibit. While it certainly did bring to light a story that enriches the existing history of modern art, so much more could be extracted from the complex relationship of the three artists. From a more traditional standpoint, how the personal story and journey of Alfonso Ossorio also affected his work could have been fleshed out more to provide deeper, more riveting interpretation.

Culturally and socially rich stories told through art create the most interesting types of fine art exhibits in my view, and this exhibit is certainly not lacking depth. The overall experience however was entirely lackluster, and I wonder if those who visited and were unfamiliar with Ossorio will even remember his role in this story after they leave.

I would still recommend seeing this exhibit to those interested in this unique cross-cultural narrative that allows us to rethink our ideas about modern art and abstract expressionism. At its core, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, opening a dialogue for questions about the intersections of art, cultural exchange, and our interpretation of history.


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A Living Man Proclaimed Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII Taryn Simon at the Corcoran


Original image

Taryn Simon’s Complex exhibit entitled A Living Man Proclaimed Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII made its way to the Corcoran Gallery of Art here in DC, after spending some time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I had the opportunity to see it a couple of weeks ago.

Original image

The exhibit is technically categorized as as photography, but it is definitely much more than just a simple photography exhibition. In a way each piece is a mini-exhibit in itself, comprised of portraiture, narrative, and objects that are carefully curated. Woven together, they explore stories that are all at once historical, contemporary, significant, and controversial.

Original image

Simon’s artist statement identifies the exhibit as being an exploration of “bloodlines and their related stories,” but each piece has much more depth than the explanation suggests. Needless to say, to explain in intricate detail how and what each “chapter” tells its particular story would certainly be a lengthy task.

Each piece comprises of three parts.

Image from MoMA.org, © 2012 Taryn Simon

First, one or more large frames on the left of each grouping shows a series of portraits of each bloodline the artist photographed over a period of four years, in almost every continent. Below is a family from China.

Image from MoMA.org, © 2012 Taryn Simon

The second component in her pieces is a text panel that identifies each subject photographed. From time to time there are blank frames or obscured subjects – all of which add intrigue to the story.

Image from MoMA.org, © 2012 Taryn Simon

Below the names is a narrative of the bloodline, and then below that, descriptions of the objects depicted in the succeeding large frame.The artist certainly did not limit herself to the traditional notion of the bloodline – and included groupings of animals as well as children in orphanages.

Image from MoMA.org, © 2012 Taryn Simon

The one grouping that was interesting to me culturally and socially as well, was one showing the bloodline of a Filipino man from the Igorot communitiy, who was brought over to the US for the St. Louis World’s Fair. The “chapter” was dense with issues that deal with history, cultural identity, xenocentrism, and could possibly also relate to more contemporary topics like immigration.

Image via Melissa Hooper's Tumblr

Artists like Simon certainly steer contemporary art in new directions, with her work becoming not just aesthetic compositions but also vehicles of discourse for relevant contemporary social issues. Her medium and methods might not be as spectacular as some other artists working today, but the stories and messages so deeply embedded in her work give them their own unique sense of brevity. You will definitely leave this exhibit curious, questioning, and wanting to know more.

The exhibition is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC until February 24th.

See more about the exhibition:


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Gutai: Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim

I spent five days last week in New York City and, like most of my trips to the Big Apple, it was a bit of a whirlwind. I didn’t get half of what I planned to see and do, but I did manage to squeeze in a couple of hours at the Guggenheim before I left for the airport.

Image: Stage of the Art

I was content just to get to explore Frank Lloyd Wright’s magnificent building but the opportunity to see the new Gutai exhibit really made my trip. The Gutai Art Association was founded by Yoshihara Jirō in Ashiya, Japan in 1954; for 18 years its 59 members created some of the most influential avant-garde works of the postwar era.

Kazuo Shiraga, Wild Boar Hunting II (1963); Image: Guggenheim Museum

“Gutai” means “concreteness,” and the group’s name reflects its collective interest in explorations of materiality, in a manner similar to the contemporary western Abstract Expressionists. Kazuo Shiraga’s “Performance Paintings” illustrate this practice. The artist abandoned the brush and used his feet to smear crimson, blood-like paint on a bullet-ridden boar hide canvas, evoking the very slaughter of the animal though thick impasto.

Atsuko Tanaka, Electric Dress (1986); Image: Jamie Ratliff

Performance came into play in many of the Gutai Art Association’s pieces. Included in the Guggenheim exhibit is Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress, an electrical costume meant to be worn in performance. When lit, it evokes the neon streets of postwar Japan and echoes the interest that several Gutai artists had in the intersection of art and technology. I was disappointed that the Electric Dress was not plugged in, as I have seen at other shows, and there wasn’t a video of her performances as there were for other works on display.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely (1956); Image: Guggenheim Museum

Gutai artists were interested in breaking down the barriers that kept art-making and display within the walls of studios and museums, which lead to numerous outdoor performances and installations, but they were also interested in involving their audience in their work. One such ground-breaking piece was Yoshihara Jirō’s Please Draw Freely, which invited visitors to Ashiya Park to participate in the painting’s creation and critiqued the Japanese government’s strict control on artistic expression of the time. This installation also captured Gutai’s interest in play and the untapped creativity of children.

Please Draw Freely (2013); Image: Guggenheim Museum via Facebook

One of my favourite features of the Guggenheim’s exhibit is the interactive elements. Please Draw Freely (2013) has been installed in the lobby, inviting its audience to contribute to the drawing just as visitors to Ashiya Park did in 1956; while it isn’t the defiant act it was 57 years ago in Japan, it brings a sense of fun and involvement that few contemporary exhibits include.

Image: Guggenheim Museum

On Saturday, February 16, children had an opportunity to work with Gutai artists and imitate their painting techniques. And weekday visitors can buy a postcard from the Gutai Art Box, a recreation of a 1962 installation. I only wish this was operational when I visited!

Motonaga Sadamasa, Work (Water) (2013);
Image: Guggenheim Museum via Facebook

With over 100 works displayed along the spiraling corridors of the Guggenheim, interspersed with videos, photos of installations, and displays of the Gutai Manifesto and the group’s print projects, this exhibit is the largest and most comprehensive showing of Gutai work in North America. For those with an interest in the avant-garde, and specifically contemporary Japanese art, this is not to be missed.

Gutai: Splendid Playground is on display at the Guggenheim NYC until May 8, 2013.


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An Exhibit for Lunch

For many of us who work in an office, the lunch hour is the much-awaited seam in the day that hinges the morning and the afternoon. Many of us can end up end working through lunch depending on our respective workloads, but if we could have a little more liberty, what else could we ingest?

A small exhibition at the New York Public Library aims to answer that question — and bring to light a few other things that we might take for granted as we take our midday meal. The exhibit is deliciously rich with images and information but is also easy enough to walk through within the span of your lunch break.

Comprised mainly of printed material presumably from the library’s archives, the exhibit tackles how lunch gained evolved over a century, and how it developed its modern identity in New York City.

The exhibition design is bold and contemporary, using large typographic installations and vibrant colors throughout to supplement the similar tones in the printed material on display. The exhibit entrance drew you right in, with its bold typography in vibrant red.

I also loved the black on black treatment of this wall with the large typography, too.

Some cases had interesting backdrops – like this skyline drawing, which added a fluid, artistic dimension to the stark red and bold, streamlined text panels.

The artifacts also had interesting details — I loved seeing some of the vintage prints and graphics. Vintage graphic design is deliciously inspiring!

The exhibit is neatly packaged, not so different from a boxed lunch meal with perfect portions of content, graphics, and artifacts. It’s a brilliantly illustrated history of lunch — its origins, evolution, and intrinsic link to the rich culture of New York City.

All images original by Renée Alfonso


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Ai Wei Wei at the Hirshhorn

Contemporary art as social commentary is certainly not a new concept, but Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei seems to elevate this particular niche of contemporary art into a different level. Ai has been critically acclaimed worldwide for his work, but in recent years has become a force unto himself – making him a phenomenal figure in the art world, and a mover and shaker of social issues, particularly in his native China.


Some consider him to be one of the most famous living artists today, particularly due to his visiblity in the media. This is part of stand on social issues in his homeland, particularly in regards to one’s freedom of creative expression. Much of his work has been defied by the Chinese government, leading to an imprisonment in 2011. He was also detained in China right before the exhibition opening and was not able to attend. He has become the voice of a new generation of Chinese creatives yearning for the right to express themselves.

The show currently on view at the Hirshhorn museum and sculpture garden in Washington, DC, is the first American exhibition showcasing Ai’s work, which includes multiple installation pieces, a photographic survey of his artistic journey thus far, as well as new work commisioned by the museum for the show and an installation in the museum’s courtyard.

The beauty of Ai’s work lies not in their aesthetics but in the stories they tell, yet they grab you from the beginning with their intense visual impact and impressive scale. The vastness of the scope of his work, coupled with the underlying stories, create a unique balance between content and form, while continuing to ask questions about the role of art in contemporary society (partcularly China).

Throuh his art and work, Ai Wei Wei brings to life realities that might slip us by, perhaps because we are removed from the situation in China and the other side of the world. In a way he is admirable because regardless of his constant criticism of his homeland and its government, there is a hint of patriotism  and  love of culture present in everything he does. Perhaps one day, others in China will finally grasp the importance of his message, and maybe we can also take something from him – and be able to make the most of our creativity and passion as he continues to do.

All images original


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