All Souls Day

November 2 is All Souls Day. In many countries people go to cemeteries on this day, not only to visit the graves of relatives, but to tidy them up, leave flowers, reminisce. Some leave food and other items as gifts or even have a picnic.

William Christenberry, Grave with Silver Trim, Hale County, Alabama, 1982, printed 2000. Ektacolor print, 18 3/8 x 23 3/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of Lee and Maria Friedlander, 2002.

William Christenberry, Grave with Silver Trim, Hale County, Alabama, 1982, printed 2000. Ektacolor print, 18 3/8 x 23 3/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of Lee and Maria Friedlander, 2002.

A sweet William Christenberry photograph, Grave with Silver Trim, Hale County, Alabama (1982) is currently on display on the second floor of the museum’s Sant building. Someone cares for the small grave in his picture; there are plastic flowers thoughtfully arranged. There don’t seem to be any other graves nearby, making this one look isolated and lonely. Silver painted concrete edging indicates that it is a small grave, perhaps for a child, while the dusty red earth bleached almost pink and the faded flowers give a feminine, little-girlish quality. This is no casual snapshot–the rectangle of the grave is carefully composed within the photographic space.

There is a poignant quality to this photograph, very similar to Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Dead Bird (1890s). A small dead bird was the traditional Victorian symbol for a deceased child–small, innocent, its song stilled.

Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant

Ink, Sand, and Ektacolor: Conversations in Christenberry

(clockwise from upper left) Contemporary photographs from The Phillips Collection, including William Christenberry's "Gourd Tree, near Akron, Alabama" (1981); William Christenberry, "Southern Monument XI", 1983. Mixed media, wood, metal, signage, roofing materials and paint, 19 in x 28 1/2 in x 19 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of Philip M. Smith, 2004; two ink paintings by William Christenberry, "Tree" (2006) and "Night Landscape" (2004), both German ink on sandpaper; 11 x 9 inches. Gift of Sandra and William Christenberry, 2010. Photos: Joshua Navarro

(clockwise from upper left) Contemporary photographs from The Phillips Collection, including William Christenberry’s “Gourd Tree, near Akron, Alabama” (1981); William Christenberry, “Southern Monument XI”, 1983. Mixed media, wood, metal, signage, roofing materials and paint, 19 in x 28 1/2 in x 19 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of Philip M. Smith, 2004; two ink paintings by William Christenberry, “Tree” (2006) and “Night Landscape” (2004), both German ink on sandpaper; 11 x 9 inches. Gift of Sandra and William Christenberry, 2010. Photos: Joshua Navarro

We posted earlier this week about a group of contemporary photographs now on view outside the Rothko Room. The presentation includes nine artists, including William Christenberry who is based in D.C. and has a show up through Oct. 27 at Hemphill Fine Arts. While the installation is focused on photography, Curator Elsa Smithgall saw an opportunity to set up dialogues between photography, painting, and sculpture and chose to include examples of Christenberry’s work in all three media.  In addition to his soulful photographic landscapes of the South, you will discover exquisite ink paintings on sandpaper and a bold Southern Monument sculpture.

Controlled Chaos

An interview between Meg Clark, program coordinator at the Phillips’s Center for the Study of Modern Art, and Klaus Ottmann, director of the Center and Phillips curator at large, on his installation in the Main Gallery of works from the permanent collection

Main gallery, detailed installation view. Photo: Kate Boone

Main gallery, detailed installation view. Photo: Kate Boone

Meg Clark: Was this your first time curating an entire gallery space from the permanent collection for the museum? What made you choose the Main Gallery?

Klaus Ottmann: An entire gallery space, yes. I think this is a kind of departure for the museum, in an effort to create more diversity and curatorial voices as far as permanent collection installations are concerned. The reason it is in the Main Gallery is because it was the first space available; it needed to be reinstalled after the Snapshot show, and I was asked to do it. I also think the Main Gallery is a beautiful space, because it really is a very traditional art gallery space. It has no windows, beautiful light, and is elevated to a certain extent–the viewpoint upon entering the gallery from the house is so interesting.

Some of the works here have elements of chaos, and collapse – which is something I think art is very much about.

MC: Tell us about your curatorial process, generally speaking and for this particular installation. Do you ever approach a project with a theme in mind, and, if so, what did you have in mind for this space?

KO: I have what you might call a non-traditional curatorial practice. It is less art historical and more influenced or informed by my philosophical background. I consider my practice to be one of structuralism, which is a form of formalism–one that considers form as content. I tend to have an a-historical approach, something that is very suitable to this museum since we do not have separate departments for different time periods, different media, etc. Years ago in other museums it was almost impossible to mix things between media and between different periods in the way it is done here. More and more museums are doing that now, but the Phillips was doing this from the very beginning, never having restrictions. There is a great freedom in that.

I never come to an installation or an exhibition with a preconceived idea or theme. I let it evolve from the works themselves. I look at a number of works and see what appeals to me. I do know that for this space I wanted to have a mixture of painting, sculpture, and photography. I especially wanted to show works we have rarely exhibited. As I was browsing through our databases and seeing what we have, certain things came to mind. For instance I like the idea of chaos and works that evoke a sense of uncontrollable circumstances or feeling. Some of the works here have elements of chaos and collapse, which is something I think art is very much about. Continue reading “Controlled Chaos” »