The Celebrated Dabbler

Who wants to be known as an amateur or a dilettante? Today, not too many people—especially a professional artist. Yet once upon a time, there was nothing wrong with dabbling. "Amateur" shares a Latin root with the Italian word "amore," to love. An amateur was a virtuous lover of knowledge, no matter the form.

Leonardo da Vinci and his wandering muse probably would have been quite frustrated with today's specialized art world. Take the case of the Blue Dog Artist. For over a decade, one Cajun artist has achieved fame for painting his dearly departed dog in shades of midnight blue, staring plaintively at the viewer with yellow eyes. Presumably, the artist doesn't feel too compelled to paint anything that might stray away from his signature blue dog. 

That's what makes the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibit at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum (running until August 12) so refreshingly eclectic. Tillmans, a young German photographer, has plastered the walls of the Hirshhorn with portraits of his friends, newspaper clippings, psychedelic landscapes and evocative zoomed-in images of curled paper, to name a few subjects. Most are tacked to the walls with pins and binder clips. It's a quiet triumph for beleaguered dilettantes everywhere.

But Tillmans has an innovative eye, and he merits a place within the seashell curves of the renowned Hirshhorn. He treats each room as its own exhibition space, and he arranges his images on the walls intuitively. Sometimes he forfeits the artistic control one would normally expect in a gallery space—how does a photocopied magazine article about Saturn relate to its neighbor, a photograph of a brimming coffee cup, reflecting a giant tree in its black eye?

The most successful pieces achieve an almost poetic rhythm through small multiples and grids. One series depicts 56 snapshots of a blurred Concorde Jet flying behind a silhouetted landscape. However, Tillmans arranges the flight path out of chronological order. In this way, the Concorde images lose their narrative pace and become lyrical, like a poem about a frozen moment.

Another photographic grid dispenses with imagery altogether: darkly reflective photographic prints, smudgy and colored like bruises. The series mystifies until one reads its edgy title, "Memorial for Victims of Organized Religions." Though the mood of this piece is supposed to be spare and somber, like Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, the title reveals the artist's true intent—to be at once provocative and reflective, before deftly moving on to other things.

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