Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Game of Thrones and Crowns: Heavenly and Global Visionaries

by Drew Martin

The American garage is an incubator of innovation. With no/low rent and fit-to-suit raw space, any idea can hatch, spread its wings, and take flight. The most famous garage success is Apple. We do not often relate garage to art because a garage space would typically be converted into, and then referred to as a studio.

Yesterday I had the chance to see real garage art - The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly by James Hampton. He was a janitor in Washington, D.C. who spent the last 14 years of his life working on The Throne, which he made with gold and silver aluminum foil, and colored paper over wood furniture, paperboard and glass. It went undiscovered until his death in 1964, when it was found in his garage.

The Throne is part of a permanent collection of the MacMillan Education Center in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. The MacMillan Education Center is dense with outside artist paintings, sculptures and craft objects, but The Throne commands the gallery space. One of the plaques by this recessed installation says it is "praised as America's greatest work of visionary art." Hampton posted Proverbs 29:18 in his garage with The Throne,

Where there is no vision the people perish.

Speaking of visionaries, there is a fantastic show on the third floor of the museum, Nam June Paik: Global Visionary through August 11, 2013. I was in D.C. for a day and could only spend a half an hour in the National Portrait Gallery so I decided to do a run through. This might sound uncouth (I wasn't actually running) but it is a fascinating way to visit a gallery and deal with the typical fatigue and overwhelming sensation we get when we spend the day in a museum. It is best to devote undisturbed time to one object but museums make us want to see everything. The nice thing about flying through gallery spaces is that you are hawk-eyed and focus on one or two things.

The works that stopped me dead in my tracks were Hampton's  The Throne and Nam June Paik's Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii. This piece is in the Lincoln Gallery and is a mural-sized representation of the United States with neon lights defining state borders and clusters of television sets within each region playing content related to that region. For example, Oklahoma features Oklahoma, the musical. I noticed New Jersey shows Allen Ginsberg, and someone told me later in the evening that Washington, D.C. is a security camera display of the viewer looking at that area.

The Special Exhibitions space on the same floor has more than 60 of Paik's works for the show. There are several walls of television screens that are as stimulating as Times Square. The works that I found most mesmerizing, and quite beautiful actually, are three of his TV Crowns. Paik used the television in each case to not broadcast content, but rather to generate content by feeding the sets with audio signals, which create rotating and gyrating rainbow-colored wreaths of light.

A young man from the museum was explaining the TV Crowns to three polite women when I wooshed by and screached to a stop on my heels to listen in. He explained that the effect was only possible with the old television tube technology and that once the tubes are gone there will be no way to show these works in their original. It is a strange thought to pull bygone television tubes into the realm of art conservation.

Later in the evening a friend told me he used to live on the floor beneath Nam June Paik. He complained that Paik's wife made too much noise in her clogs and then revealed that he turned down Paik's offer on several occasions to trade his work for this friend's photography services.