"Museum Keeps Things Fresh This Fall"
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 23, 2012
Most major museums deliver exactly what we expect, from one visit to the next. The National Gallery of Art? The Calder mobile. The Phillips Collection? Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”
With tightly focused missions and the strong brand identification that comes from carefully cultivated permanent collections, such museums can’t, or at least don’t, reinvent themselves very often.
The American University Museum, on the other hand, likes to keep its audience on its toes.
With a lively fleet and flexible exhibition program that focuses equal attention on local, national and international art -- and a healthy respect for the past and the present -- the museum delivers only one thing with great consistency: surprise. Recent shows have included a survey of contemporary female ceramicists from Japan, a spotlight on Spanish design and furniture and a presentation of new work by Washington artist Sam Gilliam.
The current shows, five of which opened earlier this month, are prime examples of why the museum, though nowhere near the Mall, is one of the city’s treasures.
The first thing you’ll notice is a wall of giant bugs.
That’s longtime Washington sculptor Joan Danziger’s “Inside the Underworld: Beetle Magic,” an installation of several dozen mixed-media renderings of beetles that makes inspired -- if slightly creepy-crawly -- use of the building’s soaring walls. The building itself, whose curving walls and dynamic sculptural forms have presented art-hanging challenges in the past, has never been better used.
Smithsonian Magazine Art/Science Blog
"Beetles Invasion: One Artist's Take on the Insect"
By Megan Gambino
Perched on a stool in her studio in northwest Washington, D.C., artist Joan Danziger pages through the book Living Jewels. “This one influenced me,” she says, pointing to Phaedimus jagori, a green-and-gold beetle from the Philippines. The book contains flattering portraits of beetles taken by photographer Poul Beckmann. “See this one?” Danziger asks, showing me a yellow-and-black striped beetle from Mexico called Gymnetis stellata. “It became the ‘Tiger Beetle’ up there.”
Clinging to a white wall in front of us are dozens of beetles—sculpted in all different shapes, sizes and colors. “They are real beetles, adapted,” says Danziger. The artist pores over books and other research on the Coleoptera order of insects so that she can apply some of the patterning and anatomy of real beetles to her sculpted ones; yet, the artist also exercises creative freedom. For instance, Danziger hasn’t made any of her beetles actual size. “That would be too realistic. The whole idea, in my mind, is to elongate and exaggerate them and make them beautiful,” she says. Her sculptures range from one to six feet in length.
This Saturday, Danziger’s swarm descends on the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C. All 72 of her giant beetles will be crawling up the gallery’s 50-foot walls in an exhibition titled “Inside the Underworld: Beetle Magic,” on display through December 16, 2012.
Danziger brings over 40 years of experience as a working artist to this project. She earned a bachelor of fine arts in painting from Cornell University and then went on to study at the Art Students Leagues in New York City and the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. She also attended artist residencies in Greece and France. Her public art can be seen in D.C., Maryland and New Jersey, and museums, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Susquehanna Art Museum and the New Jersey State Museum, have acquired her pieces for their permanent collections.
In the late 1960s, Danziger transitioned from painting to sculpture. “I got tired of being confined by the canvas,” she says. Nature and animals figure strongly in her work—a result, she says, of lots of time spent living outdoors, backpacking in the western United States and summering in Idaho. But the artist has a particular fondness for exotic animals not found in those parts—rhinos, giraffes, zebras and parrots—and a definite flair for the whimsical. She has sculpted figures, half human and half animal, performing acrobatics, cycling and playing in bands.
Now, says Danziger, “Everyone wants to know, why beetles?”
Since discovering Beckmann’s book Living Jewels, Danziger has done quite a bit of research on the insects. “There are 350,000 beetles in 160 families,” she reports. “You kind of get addicted.” At first, it was the beetles’ iridescent colors that drew her in. But, now, Danziger is enamored with all the mythology surrounding the bugs.
The scarab beetle (Scarabaeus sacer) symbolized great power and immortality to ancient Egyptians, Danziger says. The beetles are known to roll balls of dung and drop them into burrows in the ground. Female scarabs then lay eggs in the dung. The larvae, believe it or not, eat their way through the dung ball and then emerge from the ground.
“I like beetles, because they are survivors,” says Danziger. “Through all kinds of traumas of life, they are the ones that are going to survive.”
Danziger’s sculptures capture, in a sense, the full life cycle of beetles. Each of her beetles starts with an intricately woven wire armature. “They are kind of born in the wire,” she says, showing me some sculptures made strictly of wire. “Then, they roll out and get covered with ash, which is the gray material that I have up there.” She points to a gray beetle, flipped on its back and hanging on the wall; its wire foundation is completely covered in celluclay, a type of papier-mache. “And then they get reborn into color,” she explains. With this project, Danziger reinvented herself as a fused glass artist. She essentially builds mosaics of cut glass within the beetles’ wire frames. For the insects’ shells, she melts glass decorated with frit, or little pieces of colored glass, in a large kiln; the glass slumps over a mold, which gives the shell its curvature.
“Metamorphosis is the key,” writes Lenore Miller, director of George Washington University’s Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, in the exhibition catalog, “as these sculptures transform into creatures not found in nature, having evolved out of the artist’s imagination.”
Danziger leads me around her studio to introduce me to her beetle babies. “They all have names,” she says. “That is Spider. That is Retro. This is Copper Wing.” I meander through a herd of monstrous beetles laid out on the floor, taking great care not to step on a leg, antenna or wing. She hunts down a “little fellow” modeled after an actual rhinoceros beetle and an “interesting guy” inspired by a Hercules beetle. A Hercules beetle, Danziger says, can carry more weight for its size than almost any other species. After sharing the tidbit, she carries on. “This is Midnight Beetle. That is Bumblebee. This is Red Devil Beetle,” she adds. Red Devil Beetle has sharp red horns protruding from its head.
“Some people think they are absolutely beautiful, and others think, oh my God, beetles, creepy crawlies,” says Danziger. “I kind of like that dual reaction, between beauty and horror. When people think of beetles, they think of them as tiny things. But here they are magnified. They are beautiful, but strange.”
"Inside the Underworld: sculpture by Joan Danziger"
By Amanda Lineweber
When you walk into the American University Museum you'll find yourself in a beautiful, contemporary two-story atrium. You can find this kind of room in most museums and art exhibit spaces that have been built recently, and it's often used for soaring sculpture or a large-scale installation. Joan Danziger's artwork currently installed at the Katzen is both soaring and large scale, and it accomplishes both of these in addition to the fact that it's subject is beetles.
There are more than 70 beetles installed in the Katzen's atrium. Some are made solely of wire, some have beautiful glass backs or wings, some have glass mosaics integrated in the wire mesh, a tedious process. Others have plain or painted clay covering their wire bases. You could fit some beetles in your two palms, while a few are six feet across. For the last two years Danziger has been making these beetles in her studio. They've been crawling up her walls, laying on her floor, and getting tangled up in fights together.
While Danziger was creating the beetles, they had been sitting close to each other. For the installation they're more spread out, with space between each beetle. The choice allows us to see the incredible detail of each artwork. The architecture of the Katzen's atrium is well suited to the installation. When you enter, you see immediately that the beetles have taken charge of the space, crawling up every wall of the atrium, plus the ceiling. As you go up the staircase, you're able to see more detail on each beetle that wasn't clear from the ground.
What's clear from this exhibition is the fact that Danziger is a craftsperson of the very highest quality, making charming and captivating sculptures. Her wirework often incorporates multiple colors and shades of metal, which Danziger delicately mixes and twists as a painter would blend their pigments. Many of the beetles have backs made of solid plates of glass, beautifully hand colored. Several are covered in clay and attentively sculpted, requiring firm form construction to support the weight. Danziger's skill is as heightened as it ever was in her more than forty-year career.
For most of that forty-year career, Danziger has been working in DC. While most of her work can appear whimsical, if you've followed her career or looked at her larger bodies of work you'll know that Danziger follows greater systems of thought. Take these beetles for example. Each one was not created from Danziger's imagination, but to imitate an actual beetle. (For the budding zoologist, or interested visitor, a brochure lists them by name and photograph.) This artist is interested in the rules and standards of zoolo gy and mythology, in understanding them thoroughly. Danziger may choose to ignore them, but she wants to know the rules she's disregarding before she does so.
The Pink Line Project
"Inside the Underworld"
Joan Danziger’s art has always had the gravitational pull of mystery and magic. Now, in a new exhibition opening November 3, 2012 at the American University Museum in the Katzen Arts Center, Danziger will unveil the latest twist on her celebrated mythological sculptures by diving into the underworld of the beetle. Featuring approximately 60 sculptural creatures, the installation will showcase a horde of beetles in varying shapes, sizes and iridescent colors, crawling up 50-foot walls in and around the AU Museum to create a strange and creepy world. The exhibition will remain on view through December 16, 2012.
Over the course of her career, Danziger has combined her interest in the animal world with the beauty and mysticism of nature. Inside the Underworld introduces her newest riff on this theme as she explores a fresh group of subjects—beetles—with the playful fantasy and whimsy that has come to define her work. Fascinated by both the cultural myths of the beetles, which date back to the ancient Egyptians, as well as their physical ability to materialize mysteriously from underground, Danziger infuses each one with magical purpose and meaning.
Made out of Danziger’s usual technique, which consists of wire, celluclay and paint, the sculptures also incorporate a new material: fused glass. This is the first time Danziger has used glass in her work and she was inspired to experiment with glass for the exhibition at the AU Museum. The process is multifaceted as she cuts the highly colored glass into various shapes, which are then fused in a kiln. Afterwards, they are set into wire or are slumped again in a kiln for a beetle shape. Danziger likens the process to abstract paintingas she searches to create the iridescent and metallic colors of the beetles. As in the real world of insects, no two of Danziger’s beetles look the same.
“My fascination with the beetle images stems from my appreciation of their kaleidoscope of colors and patterns, their sculptural forms and the variety of their universe,” says Danziger. “They are a wonderful visual territory for me to explore intertwined with their mythology and mystery.”