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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thing 113: The Portrait Gallery

On Friday, I took the afternoon off of work, for no better reason than it's summer and GFD and I wanted to do frivolous things. We drank bloody Marys and ate fried zucchini for lunch, saw the Sex and the City movie, and finished with wings and tackiness at Hooters.

But we didn't want it to be all frivolity, so we threw some legitimate culture in there, too. We stopped in at the National Portrait Gallery to see a couple of exhibits that I've had my eye on for awhile.

I haven't spent a whole lot time in the Portrait Gallery. For the first several years I was in DC, it was under renovation and then when it finally opened I did a quick lap around it and then gave up and had lunch at Zaytinya. This time around, I specifically wanted to see the exhibit of hip hop portraits and of Herblock cartoons, and I quite enjoyed them both.

The hip hop exhibit was bright and playful and, as someone was has listened to hip hop since her formative years, a real acknowledgement that the cultural movement that is hip hop is worth celebrating within our larger culture of the arts. Thirty years ago when street kids were tagging subways in the Bronx, did they ever think that graffiti art would be lining the hallways of the Smithsonian? And yet here were huge, colorful tags spray painted on canvasses along the marble floored hallways, commanding respect as Art.

There were also some beautiful black and white portraits of artists on stage and back stage, including my love, Mos Def, and some really great ones of Erykah Badu, Public Enemy and ?uestlove. There was a video installation, and a spoken word/mixed media room but my favorite were the enormous portraits by Kehinde Wiley, bright with patterns and vitality, of various members of hip hop 'royalty' (LL Cool J, Ice T, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) posing in the style of noblemen past. The musicians are posed with objects showing their style and wealth, in front of neon repeating patterned backgrounds and with a large crest to identify who they are (LL's crest for example included a pair of boxing gloves and a Kangol hat. Don't call it a comeback...). Here, Ice T is posed in the manner of the Emperor Napoleon -- ruling over his domain.

The other exhibit we saw was the Herblock political cartoons. I have lived in DC just long enough that I remember seeing his works in the Post, as he was nearing the end of a long and storied career. Herblock was a master at the political satire, and spared no president from his harsh pen. This exhibit covers a sampling of his cartoons of FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton. The opening text for the exhibition specifically states that only cartoons that aren't nice to their subjects were selected, and Herblock spares no one as he points out corruption, indifference or hypocrisy. Clinton washes his hands of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Johnson neglects and under funds his War on Poverty and Kennedy cowered as dictators took over Latin America. This exhibit goes hand in hand with Berryman's exhibit at the National Archives, and it's a great way to learn about history -- through the eyes of cynical and humorous cartoonists.

I loved both of these exhibits, and I think they are each a good example of some of the more forward ways the portrait gallery is defining portraiture. Sharp caricatures and classic portraits of modern figures, mixed media art installations about how we see ourselves, and even the graffiti tag as self portrait because that's how the graffiti artists choose to present themselves outwards to the world...they're all housed in the same place as the oil paintings of George Washington.
The hip hop exhibit is on until the end of October, and Herblock is up through the end of November, and I'd urge you to check them out next time you're up for a bit of summertime frivolity.