9 Must-See Smithsonian Exhibits


There’s nothing like a West coaster lamenting a lack of cultural stimulation, and lust after east coast art, to make you take a good hard look at local exhibitions. My sister Rachel lives in San Diego. Save the beach, it’s a pretty vanilla city (Cali kids, don’t kill me). But Rachel is a voracious reader and a seeker of knowledge, and she knows when something cool is happening here in her hometown.

Most recently, she wrote me about Filthy Lucre: a reinterpretation of Whistler’s decadent Peacock Room. You may remember the original Peacock Room from an Urban Scrawl article entitled The Best Story Ever Told—Of One Single Room. The Peacock Room is a spectacular showdown of color, extravagance, history and golden, fighting peacocks that lives at the Freer Gallery. The gallery “un-shuttered” the room in 2011, and opens its doors every third Thursday of the month, at noon.

The totally trippy reinterpretation called Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, opened over a month ago and is one of many exhibitions—including a preview of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a retrospective of Cherokee painter and scultper Kay WalkingStick, and an exhibition of photographer Irving Penn—that I suggest we all see.

For details on nine thought provoking, current and upcoming Smithsonian exhibitions, read on…

Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre
When: May 16, 2015 – January 2, 2017
Where: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Described by the Smithsonian “as a resplendent ruin, an aesthetic space that is literally overburdened by its own excesses—of materials, history, and creativity.” I’d suggest going to see the original and then the reinterpretation for the full effect.

Meryl McMaster: Second Self
When: June 12, 2015 – December 11, 2015
Where: American Indian Museum Heye Center
Large-scale photography from an emerging Ottawan artist named Meryl McMaster. Among the works are selections from McMaster’s “Second Self,” a series of portraits addressing self-perception and constructed identity.

National Geographic Into Africa: The Photography of Frans Lanting
When: June 4, 2015 – Summer 2016
Where: Natural History Museum
Explore African wildlife through three decades of photographs from National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting.

Through the African American Lens: A Preview of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
When: May 8, 2015 – TBA
Where: American History Museum
A preview of the National Museum of African American History and Culture that includes photographs, film clips, works on paper, and fashion—all artifacts that demonstrate the richness and diversity of the African American experience.

La commedia illumina Firenze by Domenico di Michelino.

La commedia illumina Firenze by Domenico di Michelino.

The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists
When: April 8, 2015 – August 2, 2015
Where: African Art Museum
A multi-media exhibition curated by the internationally acclaimed writer and art critic Simon Njami, The Divine Comedy demonstrated the relevance of Dante’s famous work—and its themes of paradise, purgatory and hell—through a series of original commissions and renowned works by contemporary artists from 19 African nations and the diaspora.

Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions
When: May 27, 2016 – September 5, 2016
Where: American Art Museum
A collection of sculptures, drawings and prints from this internationally recognized, contemporary artist, known for his evocative forms and astonishing craftsmanship.

Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist
When: November 7, 2015 – September 18, 2016
Where: American Indian Museum
The first major retrospective of Cherokee artist Kay WalkingStick featuring 75 notable paintings, drawings, small sculptures, notebooks and diptychs from over more than four decades. From the Smithsonian’s description of the exhibition:

“Over decades of intense and prolific artistic production, she sought spiritual truth through the acts of painting and metaphysical reflection. Organized chronologically around themes that mark her artistic journey, Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist traces a path of constant invention, innovation, and evolving artistic and personal growth through visually brilliant and evocative works of art.”

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty
When: October 23, 2015 – March 20, 2016
Where: American Art Museum
Nearly 250 photographs (140 from the museum’s permanent collection and 100 that were recently donated by The Irving Penn Foundation) from famous American photographer Irving Penn (1917-2009). Penn worked within many genres, in both black-and-white and color photography, and he was a master of platinum printing. From the Smithsonian’s exhibition text: “His pictures reveal a taste for stark simplicity whether he was photographing celebrity portraits, fashion, still lifes, or remote places of the world.”

Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed
When: July 2, 2015 – April 2017, TBA
Where: Natural History Museum
An exhibition of photographs by Feodor Pitcairn and poems by Ari Trausti Guðmundssonby that reveal Iceland’s landscape post glacier. See first: lakes, hillsides and debris; then: hardy flowers, grass, moss, and lichen.

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