So Close to the President, Yet So Far Away

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at090519a.jpgPresident Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame has gotten a lot of attention. I heard it on the radio and watched it on TV and was impressed by his eloquence. But when I saw on the front page of Monday's New York Times the photo of students with the president – big smiles and handshakes all around – I was taken aback by the unintentional lack of civility shown by the students. Take a look at the photograph. Do you see what I see? Most of the graduates in the front row look ecstatic at the chance to greet Obama, but at the very moment when the President reaches out to shake their hand, their focus is somewhere else. Their eyes do not meet his; instead, they are looking down at their camera phones, making sure that this glorious moment will be immortalized, so they can prove to their grandchildren that they once met the president. But have they really met him?

at090519b.jpg It seems to me that due to our obsession with twittering about and photographing every moment of our life, we are often not completely present in what we are doing. What struck me as the ultimate irony was that here, in front of President Obama, who is literally reaching out to them, the students are not there with him a hundred percent. This is the high price we pay for not just using technology as a tool, but allowing ourselves to become addicted to it. Our ability to fully participate in what we see, what we hear, what we experience with all our senses, is constantly undermined by our incessant need to document it and spread the word. I've seen tourists approaching Leonardo's Mona Lisa, and instead of savoring the moment and communing with her, choosing instead to be photographed against it. And that's exactly what some Notre Dame students did at the moment they had the unique chance to look President Obama in the eye.

at090519c.jpg Okay, now that I got that off my chest, let me share with you some high points of last week's new exhibitions. The retrospective of paintings by Barkley Hendricks that just opened at the Santa Monica Museum of Art follows the arc of his career over more than four decades. Mostly, but not exclusively, these are life-size portraits of African Americans exuding the proverbial cool. Demonstrating remarkable skill, the artist places his subjects against a monochromatic background and strangely enough, achieves maximum effect with figures dressed in white against a white background, as with an early self-portrait (Slick, 1977), radiating confidence and attitude. Sadly, his more recent works tend to be formulaic, lacking the sense of freshness and discovery of his earlier paintings.

at090519d.jpg The exhibition of works by LA artist Pae White at 1301PE gallery delivers yet another surprise for those following her career. This time, she blows smoke in our eyes, so to speak. Making photographs of delicate plumes of smoke rising from an invisible pipe, she transforms these images into intricately woven "smoke tapestries." The few smaller ones seen on the ground floor come off as a mere warm-up, but the gigantic one on the second floor, measuring almost 10 x 22 feet, delivers a blow straight to your face. I couldn't help imagining a great ceremonial hall where it could hang as a centerpiece.

at090519e.jpg So it didn't come as a surprise when the gallery director showed me the video of a spectacular, even larger tapestry, commissioned by the Oslo Opera House in Norway and used as a shimmering stage curtain. We in Los Angeles should be so lucky to have a curtain like that in one of our theatres.

Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, Paintings 1964-2007
On view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through August 22

Pae White: Smoke Knows
On view at 1301PE through June 20

Banner image:Barkley L. Hendricks, What’s Going On (detail)