Saturday, June 7: Today I go to an exhibit in Alexandria that was written up in the Washington Post Weekend Section. The exhibit titled Words and Letters came about as the curator at the Athenaeum explored a wide variety of artists in the DC metro area who use text in their visual art.
The Athenaeum is one of Alexandria’s two surviving examples of Greek revival neo-classical architecture open to the public. The room has 24-foot high coved ceilings, enormous windows and beautiful woodwork. The exterior features four Doric columns across the portico and walls of stucco over stone and brick.
The building was constructed in 1852 as the Bank of the Old Dominion. Robert E. Lee did his banking here. During the Civil War, it served as the Chief Commissary’s Office for the Union Army. Between 1870 and 1963, the building was owned by the Citizen’s National Bank, served as a factory, and served as the area’s first Free Methodist Church. In 1964, it was purchased by the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association (NVFAA), repurposed as an art center, and renamed the Athenaeum for the Greek word Athenaion, a temple for Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom.
Wordfall, a curtain made of 60,000 paper clips wrapped in words, is the first piece I encounter in the exhibit. Two artists created the piece: Lisa Hill, Assistant Dean and Associate Professor at Northern Virginia Community College, and Francie Hester, an artist with works represented in various collections from the World Bank to the IMF. The words aren’t just random words, but are the words of two writers who both succumbed to brain cancer. Diane Granat Yalowitz was a journalist and senior editor of the Washingtonian magazine. Brendan Ogg was an aspiring writer with a love of poetry from the past, including that of John Keats and TS Eliot. Brendan was a close friend of Diane’s son, Adam.
Diane first succumbed to brain cancer, and Brendan followed six years later. In separate efforts, Diane’s articles and Brendan’s poetry were woven together as a tribute to their life and spirit by friends, family and even people who didn’t know either of the writers.
Marty Ittner’s encaustic collages show a random assembly of disparate elements. Says the artist: “There may be meaning or no meaning, and that is the beauty.” One of the three collages is titled Slope. The volunteer docent tells me the artist used old family photographs as part of the collages.
Artist Billy Colbert has used popular culture, personal experiences and cultural leveraging to serve as narrative for his mixed media works. His collages include scraps of text with graphic material, including W.W. Denslow’s “Wizard of Oz” illustrations. Colbert works and resides in Washington, D.C.. He received his MFA in painting from the University of Delaware in 2000, where he was a Presidential Fellow.
Here are some of the other collages in the exhibition.
“Secrets of the Elements is what happens when a chemist becomes an artist and meets an advertising copywriter turned poet. Art and haiku meet the periodic table and tell a story as old as Lithium.” Lithium 3 is created by Langley Spurlock and Martin Tarrat.
I AM MY NORTH POLE
SOUTH OF MY SOUTH
FLYING EAST WEST ALL DIRECTIONS
UP AND DOWN AND DOWN AND OUT
WITHOUT MY LITHIUM STONE
Here is but a piece of Pat Autenrieth’s Grasping at Straws, which features the word “Mama.” It’s nearly impossible to read because of the size of the quilt, nearly 5 feet tall, which makes the letters appear as patterns rather than text.
According to the exhibition brochure, “In her early work, Lynn Schmidt used letters and numbers as formal elements. Later she introduced dictionary illustrations and text into the paintings and sculpture as links to the wider, outer world.” In The Road Home, she uses acrylics and a collage of dictionary illustrations, unstretched canvas, and grommets. In her #125, Trap, she uses found objects such as a minnow trap and toilet tank balls, and a collage including a surveyor’s measuring tape and dictionary illustrations.”
Lori Anne Brooks was a writer when young, and using text as a subject matter for her painting lets her give in to both passions and honor the stories that make up who we are.
Cara Ober layers drawing, painting, and printmaking into mixed media works that examine and reinterpret sentimental imagery. She says the fun in working with text is confusing its literal meaning to create layers of (mis)understanding. Her work reveals the inadequacy of words in expressing the complexities of experience.
Pat Autenrieth has always been attracted to using words in her work. In the case of I Said No, the artist says it’s a satire on the fatuous names of lipstick. Women’s lipsticks often have names such as Pink Cloud, Dollhouse Pink, Orchid Frost, All Heart. In this quilt, the lipstick names speak to emotions, and angry ones at that: Rage, Contempt, Smolder, Sarcasm, Insolence, Sneer, Pout.
After enjoying this exhibit, I take a walk down to Old Town’s waterfront, where I see some nice views of the Potomac.
Have you visited an interesting art exhibit lately?