by Maura Judkis
Typically, a visit to an art gallery entails hours of whispered reverence from afar. Surrounded by signs forbidding photographing and touching the artwork and being stared down by guards at the entry of each room, it’s a wonder that gallery-gazers are able to enjoy themselves at all. J. Seward Johnson, the sculptor of Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, does not subscribe to this system of beliefs. His exhibit at the Corcoran Museum of Art encourages the opposite: visitors are urged to bring their cameras and pose with Johnson’s life-sized recreations of famous Impressionist paintings, to the horror of some and to the delight of others.
Johnson’s exhibit enables visitors to have an experience unlike any they’ve had in a museum before. He has recreated famous Impressionist paintings by Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt and others, in the third dimension, allowing the visitor to enter the artwork and explore it from angles that the original was unable to depict. This is also where Johnson exercises his artistic liberties the most. While each installation has a “sweet spot,” or place from which the view most closely matches that of the painting, what is obscured from the sweet spot is where Johnson’s personality comes out.
The most enjoyable part of the show, other than the sheer surreal feeling of entering a painting, is discovering the hidden personal touches that have been added to each sculpture. Johnson has a keen and almost bawdy sense of humor in many of the pieces – he makes fun a priority in his work, rather than an additional bonus. In “Oriental Fan,” his recreation of Monet’s “La Japonaise,” a walk to the right of the sweet spot reveals details obscured in the painting – Monet’s wife’s exposed thighs and the image of a Samurai warrior on the inside of the kimono, gazing up and inside her robes. In “Sailing the Seine,” Johnson’s interpretation of Manet’s “Argenteuil,” the view from behind the sculptures reveals the male subject placing a friendly hand on his female companion’s rear.
In “Were You Invited?” Johnson’s take on Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” reveals a figure flirtatiously touching a man’s foot under the table, but a walk deeper into the tableau reveals what is perhaps Johnson’s greatest personal touch: himself. Yes, Seward Johnson’s statue of his own likeness has crashed the boating party, and sits with a table of friends in the back, drinking wine. This is undoubtedly the artist’s boldest move and the most likely to incite the purists who wish to leave impressionism untouched. Perhaps Johnson is being a bit presumptuous, but really, that’s the point – his work is quite literally the definition of postmodernism because of its blend of “high” and “low” art. The irony of the exhibit is how Johnson takes some of the most revered Impressionist paintings and transforms them into touchable displays that visitors surround with their cameras, instructing each other how to pose and clicking away like the tourists most of them are.
Even the pieces that are straight, non-humorous recreations are successful simply because of their attention to detail. Entering Johnson’s interpretation of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Bedroom,” called “Welcome Home,” viewer feel as though they are in a bizarre dream. The cartoon-like, black-outlined furniture gives one a sense of what it would be like to live in a world designed by Dr. Seuss.
“On Poppied Hill” is a fantastic blend of two Monet paintings, “Woman with a Parasol” and “Poppies at Argenteuil” and takes up the entire space of the museum’s rotunda, where it is appropriately placed to provide a 360-degree view. Perhaps the most detailed work in the collection is “Confrontational Vulnerability,” based on Manet’s “Olympia.” This installation not only gives guests an intimate look at Olympia, but allows us to see her surroundings as she would. Visitors enter through a beaded curtain and find themselves in an intricately decorated and beautiful room, with the nude sculpture in the center.
Like it or not, the show is worth attending just for the experience, which has been described as similar to that of Alice stepping through the looking glass. Go ahead and invite yourself to the boating party, lie down in van Gogh’s bedroom, look over Monet’s shoulder as he paints his “Garden at Sainte-Adresse” and, most importantly, feel the controversy swirl around the room. After all, what J. Seward Johnson has created is more than just a show, it is an event, an attraction and a dispute.
by Beth Mosenthal
While perusing the Corcoran Gallery’s Web site to get a taste for its current exhibition, Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, The Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson Jr., I had to smirk at the candid description of Johnson’s three-dimensional, life-size sculptures of famous Impressionist paintings as “playful interpretations of celebrated masterpieces… (that) encourage us to take a fresh look at some old favorites.”
I was at a loss. It was one of those moments when I simultaneously scolded myself for not thinking of the idea first and shook my head in disbelief at what credible art galleries now consider exhibition-worthy.
In my attempt to comprehend the artistic angle Johnson may have taken, it is best to relate his sculptures to the fashion industry. Over the past two centuries, trends in fashion have come and gone and repeated themselves many times over. Just last year, designers’ chuckled as the fashion-savvy paraded around once more in the oh-so-popular cowboy garb once flaunted on ’70s television shows and in more recent years at Dixie Chicks concerts. This year, models took to the runways in go-go boots and mod-mini-skirts, daring once again to use basic geometric shapes as form-flattering apparel. And then, sometime in the midst of this trend of adapting from the past, Johnson decided to look at late-19th century Impressionist paintings and bring them back as three-dimensional sculpture, 10 times louder and less fashionable.
As someone who is somewhat sentimental for the artistic accomplishments of the past, I, too, appreciate the nostalgia of a Mary Cassatt print on a dorm-room wall, or a tote bag donning Claude Monet’s famous water lilies. However, I feel these subtle manifestations of Impressionist works in daily life are acceptable in the sense that they pay small tribute to a style that will forever be appreciated and recognized as a pivotal moment in artistic history.
But to describe Pierre Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party in which members of the bourgeoisie attend a leisurely afternoon meal in the company of friends, as an “old favorite” is unacceptable. Would the fashion critics of today review a revival of the ’80s power suit, shoulder pads and all, as a reincarnation of an “old favorite?” I doubt it.
An artistic movement should not be looked at as a collection of works that are now considered “old favorites” when this term fails to even scratch the surface regarding the relevance of the movement and its significance as a unique artistic period. Yet, after viewing Johnson’s show, I think this term is unabashedly appropriate, and not in a good way.
Johnson and the Corcoran seem to have paired up to create a show that appeals to the masses, while sacrificing any recognition of artistic vision. The saying “art for art’s sake,” seems to come to mind when thinking of the marketable quality of taking universally popular paintings and giving them a new spin in order to attract viewers and attention. While it is important to note that Johnson’s sculpture replicates the chosen paintings in an accurate, visually comparable manner, the entire philosophy of Impressionism is lost in his work.
By making his sculptures so completely accessible and straightforward to the public, the concept of capturing a moment or a scene at a glance is lost entirely in Johnson’s translation. Instead of capturing the essence of Impressionism-the interaction of light and brushstroke and movement, Johnson weighs down Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh’s work with a permanence that is irrevocable.
However, it would be unfair to lie and say that I detested the entire experience. Standing in Johnson’s “Welcome Home,” a room that serves as a reinvention of Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom,” I felt as if I was embellishing in a guilty pleasure. Suddenly, by actually being in the bedroom, I was a witness to the art with a completely different sensory experience than I would have had by solely looking at a painting.
But in the end, I was still unimpressed. I longed for Johnson to channel his creativity and sculpting abilities toward creating new, unique forms that could be appreciated for their modernity, not their sentimentality. My wonderment at Monet’s ability to capture in a series of brushstrokes ad bold colors the sensuality and movement of his wife Camille in a Japanese costume will forever reign superior to Johnson’s statue of Camille titled “Oriental Fan,” in which the life-size sculpture of Camille stares at viewers with a cheesy grin.
If anything, Johnson’s works are “fun.” Yet, as I exited the Corcoran, I wondered whether his sculptures might serve a better purpose at a children’s museum, in which a curator might end an interactive tour of jumping on the bed in Van Gogh’s “Bedroom” and begging the members of the “Boating Party” for piggyback rides with one loaded question: “So, which was your favorite?”
Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, The Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson Jr. is on exhibition now through January 5th. The Corcoran Gallery of Art is located at the intersection of 17th Street and New York Avenue, NW, one block southwest of the White House. Ramp entrance for persons with disabilities is located at 1701 E Street, around the corner from the main entrance. The Corcoran is open from 10 am to 5 p.m. daily. Closed every Tuesday. Extended hours Thursday evenings until 9 p.m. except Thanksgiving. The museum is closed Tuesdays, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Admission to the Corcoran is: $5 for individuals; $4 for senior citizens; $3 for students with a current student ID; and $8 for family groups of one or two parents and children under 18. Members and Children under 12 are free. Admission is free on Mondays and on Thursdays after 5 p.m.