East City Art Reviews—Hamiltonian Artists Unexpected Occurrences at The Kreeger Museum

By Eric Celarier on August 2, 2022
Unexpected Occurrences at the Kreeger Museum, Photo Courtesy of Hamiltonian Artists, Photo Credit: Anne Kim

In 1969 David Kreeger wrote a preface to a catalogue describing his art collection with these words, “Ours is a living collection, and therefore constantly shifting, improving, and changing.” [1] Yet, how does an institution stay true to that vision when its permanent holdings were more or less settled over thirty years ago? Even though the collection has received some venerable works from the Corcoran and other places in recent years, to truly live up to Kreeger’s ambitions of flexibility, those entrusted with the museum’s legacy must reach into the present to make fresh connections.

To do this Helen Chason, who has been the director of the Kreeger Museum since 2017, has partnered  with local collectives like the Nicholson Project, and now with Hamiltonian Artists through its Collaborative program to allow new art to mingle with its celebrated precursors. The most recent incarnation of this initiative is Unexpected Occurrences, a show that integrates the collection’s panoply of historical treasures with works from a new generation of ambitious practitioners. Curated by Tomora Wright, Fellowship Director of Hamiltonian Artists, the exhibit creates curious connections between the Kreeger’s modernist resources and the fellowship’s contemporary offerings.

Given the pedigree of the Kreeger’s assets, the museum could be forgiven if it were to sequester its restless guests to a side room. To its credit, the Kreeger has welcomed these visiting works as equals, placing these newer contributions alongside their elder counterparts—even when some of these current works subtly critique the founding principles on which the collection is built.

While Jason Bulluck’s Mahayana Analog Database 5 does not deride the Kreeger collection, it does question many of the ways we categorize art throughout Western history. Bulluck’s smooth, geometric design, made of wood and plaster, is reminiscent of a human figure without necessarily being one. It is strangely at home, sitting in the salon room that, like the rest of the building, represents the sleek aesthetic of the Kreeger Museum’s modernist architect Phillip Johnson. Bulluck’s construction also invites comparisons with a type of metal-plated, reliquary statue from Gabon, Africa, called Mbundu Ngulu, located across from his work. By classical standards, these might be considered opposites, but, led by his Mahayana Buddhist principles, Bulluck suggests that this juxtaposition impugns the idea that such tight divisions are meaningful when a bridge can be made between all art objects. Bulluck says, “I am also interested in the formal interplay of African (& Asian) and Western abstraction, and hope my work—especially in this exhibition—helps dematerialize the art historical and cultural boundary between these traditions.” [2]

 

Jason Bulluck, Mahayana Analog Database 5, 2016, Photo Courtesy of Hamiltonian Artists, Photo Credit: Greg Staley

Joey Enriquez’s monotype, fall red Appalachian trail, traveled north also indirectly confronts assumptions that may be inherent in the collection. Enriquez presents an abstract design made of dyed clay, a media that demonstrably binds it to the natural world. Collecting these natural materials on his sojourns into the wild, Enriquez sees this media as bound to the land in ways that can be even more representative of the idea of landscape than conventional depictions. [3] Enriquez, who prefers they and them pronouns, contrasts their print with the Kreeger collection’s 1920 lithograph Grabende Arbeiter by Edvard Munch hung on a wall opposite theirs. Enriquez sees Munch’s work as representative of capitalism’s propensity to “flatten differences.”[4]   Enriquez says that conceptual messages change in an American commercial context so that Munch’s original intention of appreciating working class figures within a street scene transforms into an image of anonymous and replaceable forms in a nondescript picture plane. Enriquez sees their own picture as more vibrant, stating, “Through the abstraction of my objective optical perspective of the landscape and my physical, lived experience on the land, I embed the presence of my own body without presenting corporeal form.”[5]

Joey Enriquez, fall red Appalachian trail, traveled north, 2021. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

Lionel Fraser White III’s relief sculpture one for the dead embodies the idea that black memory, in contrast to the dominant paradigm of white patriarchy “… considers subjugated knowledge as a central point in understanding the world.” [6] White’s assemblage of discarded wood, bottles, and candles has the spirit of a roadside memorial. White says that he calls upon traditions prevalent within the black community, such as pouring out liquor and lighting vigil chandlery for deceased relatives, to describe acts of remembrance that testify to the experience of marginalized groups. White compares the human ability to store memory, with wood’s capacity to accumulate evidence of the past. He says, “The assemblage of wood is significant in how wood holds history in its grain, similar to how the body does, and each piece contains its own history. These wood pieces are stand-ins for the lives, legacies, and bodies of those who have gone on, an ode to a practice of rememory.” [7] In the room that is adjacent to White’s construction are an array of wooden masks and statues from diverse parts of Africa. Ranging from Guinea to the Republic of Congo—functioning in different cultural ways and covering a wide range of activities from coming of age rites to honoring past leaders—White’s artwork not only shares an association with the same media, wood, but also the understanding that such objects can testify to the disruptions of societies and their struggle to survive.

Lionel Fraser White III, one for the dead, 2021, Photo Courtesy of Hamiltonian Artists, Photo Credit: Greg Staley

Stephanie Garon’s installation of extracted mine cores, titled Void II, describes the environmental ramifications of extracting metals and minerals, including pollution from gasses and chemical dumps that continue to affect the ecology long after they are introduced. Garon makes the point that the Kreeger Museum is located in the same corridor of digging that developed during the early 1800s. While Garon is not making a specific connection to the Kreeger by displaying the test cores acquired from Big Hill, Maine, she is reacting to the land on which the Kreeger is built. Like the Wabanacki Native Americans in Maine, Garon says the Anacostan tribe in our region depended on clean water near these sites, so these speculative activities disrupted economies and cultures. One cannot also help but notice that the museum’s veneer of travertine stone might have produced similar consequences elsewhere. We often don’t think about where materials, such as stone, minerals, or metal, come from, and Garon seems to be making it clear that we should. Garon says, “My artwork investigates humanity’s interruption of nature. The juxtaposition of natural objects against industrial materials exposes dichotomies of formality/fragility and permanence/impermanence.” [8]

Stephanie Garon, Void II, 2022, Photo Courtesy of Hamiltonian Artists, Photo Credit: Greg Staley

Other artists saw the museum’s work as a foundation to build on. Maria Luz Bravo takes long, narrow photographs in her series, called Moving Panorama, that describe the landscape as it changes through human interaction. These pictures call attention to the social context in which these areas evolve. Rather than challenging the modernist artists in the collection, she says she responded to painters like Avery, Bonnard, and Cézanne positively, because they explored the importance of the painter’s perspective in their process. By setting the camera to panoramic mode when the camera is moving, the system has to make choices about what it records and what it leaves out, demonstrating that there is no objective view. This idea could easily dovetail with any image-making practice that excises or adds elements in order to make sense of multiple perspectives, such as cubist renderings.

Maria Luz Bravo, Moving Panorama, 2018, Photo Courtesy of Hamiltonian Artists, Photo Credit: Greg Staley

Madeline Stratton reacted to specific artworks in the collection and to the building in which they are housed. Borrowing Monet’s color palette of gentle tints from paintings such as Cliffs at Les Petite-Dallas and Sunset at Pourville, she renders the shapes of the shadows formed through the interplay of sunlight on Johnson’s architectural structures. In works such as Les ombres du jardin, which translates from the French to The Shadows in the Garden, she identifies the colonnade surrounding the pool, as her subject. Other works of Stratton’s, like Lumière mouchetée dans les arches, or Speckled light in the arches, reference the Grand Hall’s glass walls. Stratton describes her intentions on her website, “By creating silhouettes of objects and simplified structures of empty spaces, I aim to convey both absence and belonging. I search for ways to memorialize and find comfort in the objects of daily rituals and the spaces in which they take place.” [9]

Madeline Stratton, Les ombres du jardin, 2022, Photo Courtesy of Hamiltonian Artists, Photo Credit: Greg Staley

Nestled between the books, Amber Eve Anderson embeds her video installation Seabed into the architecture of the library’s built-in bookcases. Anderson characterizes her aims by saying, “My work as an artist pairs lyrical narratives with larger notions of home, memory, and identity.”[10] Seabed could be described as an electronic book, presenting a sequence of captioned photographs of her bedsheets, taken upon waking, over a one-month period. Anderson says that the nature of these shots, along with the background soundtrack of lapping waves, creates associations between the vastness of sleep and the depth of the ocean. Anderson states, “I am interested in the way one’s surroundings, whether virtual, handmade, or natural come to shape one’s behavior identity.” [11] In this case, she has integrated the intimacy of her own personal environment into the Kreeger’s private study through the use of technology that its original occupants and architect could not have anticipated.

Amber Eve Anderson, Seabed, 2015, Photo Courtesy of Eric Celarier, Photo Credit: Eric Celarier

We expect the young to challenge, build on, and learn from the old, and with any luck, when they do, an agreeable synthesis can occur. Assimilating our local work from the next generation of promising figures in our area, the Kreeger Museum, which holds such a cast of venerable names in art history, shows that it still has faith that the art of our community is relevant in a world that seems increasingly preoccupied with the creative output of a small number of cities elsewhere. Curator Tomora Wright, working closely with Kreeger’s staff through the Collaborative program, has installed the Hamiltonian works among the Kreeger’s collection in such a way that they not only compliment their companions, but also confront hard truths about the world.

 


Unexpected Occurrences is on view through August 27, 2022. The Kreeger Museum is located at 2401 Foxhall Rd NW, Washington, DC 20007.  Hours are Tuesday-Friday 10AM–12PM, 2–4PM, and Saturday 10AM–12PM, 1:30–3:30PM, closed Sunday and Monday, for more information call (202) 337-3050, visit https://www.kreegermuseum.org/, Visitors must obtain a timed-entry pass to enter the Museum. Walk-in entry without advanced registration is available for members. Admission: Adults: $10, Students, Military, & Seniors: $8, Children (12 & under) Free, Members: Free


[1] Henri Dorra, The Kreeger Collection, (Washington D.C.: H. K. Press, 1970), p.3.

[2] Direct communication with Jason Bulluck for this article.

[3] From the digital exhibition catalogue for this exhibition, p.29.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Ibid., p.40.

[7] Ibid., p.39.

[8] http://www.garonstudio.com/about.html

[9] https://www.madelineastratton.com

[10] Ibid., p.15.

[11] Ibid.