Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Fine Wine and Impressions

It took almost six years, but I did it.

Back in 2009, I'd read about cask ales arriving in D.C. via Churchkey, here, and been drawn in because the article had been written by the Post's then-art critic, Blake Gopnik. Lo these many years later, I decided to head up and finally find out for myself.

Sure, you could make a point for cask ales being available in Richmond now, too, but that wasn't the point. Churchkey is known for being a beer mecca - hello, 500 bottles, 50 drafts, 5 cask ales. Besides, trying it there meant an art getaway, too.

Stop one was the Freer Gallery on the mall to check out "Fine Impressions: Whistler, Freer and Venice," an exhibit of etchings that made a Whistler devotee of Freer, a man who had not yet been to Italy but was enthralled with the images.

It wasn't just Whistler's technical mastery, but the innovation of form, the way he was able to evoke light and atmosphere on paper at a time when that wasn't the norm. But what was so cool about his choice of subject matter was how ordinary it was. Not for him the landmarks, churches and usual inspiration.

Instead he sketched gardens, fruit stalls, balconies and turkeys in alleys. The kind of stuff you'd discover wandering the streets or floating in a gondola. A drop dead gorgeous collection of images.

Since I share with the long-deceased Mr. Freer a passion for Whistler's work, my next stop was upstairs for "Freer and Whistler: Points of Contact," a gallery of paintings, prints and drawings that represent Whistler's synthesis of Eastern and Western art. It was that interest that led Freer down the rabbit hole to becoming a lifelong collector of Asian art.

It was while visiting Whistler's iconic Peacock Room, designed to house Freer's extensive collection of Japanese and Chinese pottery (but also documenting the dissolution of the friendship between Whistler and his then-patron Frederick Leyland during the creation of it), that I met a couple of women, one from London, the other from Boston.

Don't you both have fabulous museums in your hometowns, I asked. "Yes, but they're not free," they shot back. Touche. In town for a soccer game, they'd overheard me asking about the Peacock Room and decided to tag along.

Make new friends, but keep the old and all that rot.

From there, we went to see Darren Waterston's "Peacock Room Remix: Filthy Lucre," a reimagining of the Peacock Room and its sordid story of a patron and an artist who parted ways over art and money.

Meant to be seen from all sides and reconstructed at 90% scale, Waterston took ten months to plan every inch of the room. Instead of delicate Asian heirlooms, the broken and crooked shelves held garishly painted, chipped and downright broken pieces of pottery. Oozing gold spots covered the floor and shards littered it.

In Whistler's room, the large painting of two peacocks showed them fighting, a representation of him and Leyland and their falling out. In Waterston's version, the peacocks are eviscerating each other and it's not pretty.

It was a helluva dark take on the original.

While we were experiencing the room with its haunting music and eerie red light emanating from the windows, a couple walked in, looked around and turned on their heels. In a French-accented voice the man said, "They're comparing this to Whistler's? You gotta be kidding!"

Mais non, you're missing the point, monsieur.

As I was finishing the exhibition, I heard a crack of thunder outside that sent me straight to the interior courtyard, a lovely space with a fountain, trees and places to sit. Within seconds it was pouring rain, so I found a cozy place on the porch to watch the lightening show while around me, other visitors sat in chairs, took their shoes off and napped.

Why anyone would choose to sleep through a magnificent thunderstorm is beyond me. The deluge turned the fountain into a frothing piece of art while I counted off the seconds in between thunder and lightening, hoping for more but knowing I had places to be.

Namely at the front door to meet my companion and get ourselves to Churchkey to meet a favorite couple by 4:00. Luckily, I'd brought my umbrella. Driving over to Logan Circle, we passed scads of tourists soaked to the skin hurrying along. The kids looked like they were having a ball, the parents and school group leaders, not so much.

At Churchkey, we managed to be customers #3 and 4, choosing a bar table by the enormous front window with a view of the fast-moving clouds, a far cry from the dark recesses of the back tables.

Our server was eager to indoctrinate me into the world of cask ale after I shared my story, suggesting that Big Chimney's Porter from Mad Fox Brewing company would be the best choice for me, mainly because the other cask ales were all IPAs.

Not the right choice for a cask ale virgin, apparently.

I was barely a few sips in, pleased at the warmer temperature and lesser carbonation, when the happy couple showed up, impressed at me with a beer glass in my hand. After expressing her astonishment, she looked at our server and demanded tots, lots of tots.

Our server, a transplant to DC from Raleigh and musical to boot (treble clef on one hand, bass clef on the other and played bass and drums), let us know that all meats were cured in house, all breads housemade, almost all ingredients locally sourced, so we ran rampant over the menu. So, sure, he'd bring tots, but might we want more?

Duh. Buffalo wings, garlic breadcrumb mac and cheese sticks, fire-roasted shishito peppers, Fontina grilled cheese, fettuccine with pork belly, fig and prosciutto flat bread with bleu cheese. And tots.

The mention of Raleigh took us on a tangent about the couple being at a beach house and finding a koozie from Taylor's Fine Wine and Fish Bait in Raleigh. As if that combo - fine wine and bait- wasn't evocative enough, the logo was a worm emerging from a can o' bait with a wine glass in its (non-existent) hand.

She assured us she'd left a koozie of her own to replace the Taylor's one she took home.

He amused us with stories about having recently gone to see Billy Joel ("The saddest bunch of white people you ever saw in one stadium," she inserted). They'd enjoyed the show, acknowledging that the man had a lot of hits and still sounded note perfect, but the highlight of the evening wasn't from the piano man.

Apparently Billy Joel has a guitar tech known as Chainsaw (That's the story I'd like to hear. Chainsaw?) and Chainsaw gets to come out and do one song every show. For this one, he'd come out and done a kickass version of "Highway to Hell." She said some of the audience members looked like their evening had been hijacked, but they loved it.

I'd like to say that after my first cask ale, I ordered another, but that would be a lie. Instead I took tastes from all three of their many beers, probably enjoying the very citrusy Fresh Squeezed IPA from Deschutes Brewery in Oregon most.

And now I can cross off "try cask ale" from my bucket list with a clear conscience. Thanks, Blake, you art geek, you.

When we left there it was to head to their house. Milling about the kitchen, she looks at him and asks, "Should we go down to Shorty's?" and he raises an eyebrow and nods. Drinks in hand, we troop downstairs and outside where sits possibly the coolest tiki bar I've ever seen.

A corrugated metal lean-to angles off the roof where lights of many colors are strung. Lighting hangs from a waterski, with surfboards, catchy signs and colorful miniature license plates making up the decor. A rough-hewn wooden door is the bar, around which sit five stools of varying styles. Two sling chairs sit under the lean-to. A wooden swing hangs from the outer edge and I immediately get on it.

With a citronella candle burning brightly, a stereo behind the bar plays a mix tape that ranges from Todd Rundgren (amazingly, the second time I've heard "We Gotta Get You a Woman" in five days) to the Decemberists to Amos Lee. The story of how it was named Shorty's is a doozy, although unprintable on a wholesome blog such as this.

On a sultry summer night, this is the most wonderful place we could have ended up.

Conversation flows, much of it the kind of in-depth movie discussion that only true cinephiles enjoy. Dissecting the best picture nominees. Comparing new and old "Mad Max" movies. Which is better, the film or the book "Gone Girl"? What was sadder, "The Imitation Game" or "Theory of Everything"? Discussing Bond has the potential to go on until dawn.

Eventually, we go to bed because there is more art to be seen today, this time at American University, a place I've never been despite being a native Washingtonian. We wind our way through Georgetown, past Dumbarton Oaks (still hoping to make it to that pool), and onward to AU.

The women who greets us at the Katzen Arts Center where we've gone to see the "Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb" exhibition, points the way upstairs to the third floor and says, "Enjoy it," then retracts that. "Enjoy is the wrong word," she corrects herself.

Part historical exhibit, two parts artistic exhibit and overwhelmingly moving, this is like several shows in one.

Part of it began in 1947 when a Washington church group sent art supplies to traumatized Japanese elementary students, giving them a chance to express their vision for the future. The drawings and paintings are surprisingly positive - kids flying kites, playing games, frolicking by the river - and some of them amazingly deft.

They toured the U.S. back in 1949 and after this show, they will be returned to Japan.

Another part of the show is the history of the Atom bomb, along with artifacts from the bombing as well as photographs of the aftermath. Seeing a woman with the pattern of her kimono burned into her back and shoulder is as unsettling as it is striking. Another of the image of a man's body burned into a concrete step is beyond comprehension.

Artifacts- rosaries, school jackets, a watch, even glass bottles - show the effect of 6,000 degree heat, as do photographs of burn victims.

But the centerpiece of the show is a series of panels by husband and wife artists Iri and Toshi Maruki, who arrived shortly after the bombings and then spent decades (the panels range from 1950 to 1995) documenting the bombing and its aftermath. Each enormous panel addresses another aspect of the horror, but they're all stunning in their impact, even in the beauty of the imagery despite the subject.

With the 70th anniversary of the bombings next week, it seemed like the right time to learn more about the events and the artistic reaction to them, especially since the show leaves in two weeks.

And as long as I was in Washington to worship Whistler, throw back some cask ale and get my tiki on, the least I could do was go through the exhibit and leave my comments in the guest book before it all returns to Japan.

Make love, not war. Try cask ale at least once. And try your best never to let an important free exhibition go unseen.

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