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Ellen Harvey Goes Back To School

BY LISA LIPINSKI, CHAIR OF ARTS AND HUMANITIES AT THE CORCORAN COLLEGE OF ART + DESIGN

The Classical Tradition Comes Alive for Corcoran Students

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (Constitution of

the United States of America)

For one week in July, nine Corcoran College of Art + Design students, both undergraduate and graduate, donned their walking shoes and followed me all over the monument corridor of the District of Columbia. From the U.S. Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery, from the Jefferson Memorial to the White House, they saw how the founding ideas of our nation influenced the art, architecture, and urban design of the city. The students were enrolled in a Continuing Education course I’ve taught for two summers called Where History Comes Alive: Museums and Monuments of Washington, D.C..

The course offers a civics and history lesson through the visual art and architecture of Washington, D.C. On the first day of class we read the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution before heading over to the Capitol for a tour and to observe Congress in action.

Classicism is the language of power, pure and simple.

Ellen Harvey: The Alien’s Guide to Washington, D.C. opened a week before our class began. There could not have been a more fortuitous conjunction of exhibition planning and curriculum on the part of the Corcoran. For most of the one-week intensive course, we were immersed in the study of art history. The theme of the course was representation: that is, the foundation of our democracy but also the symbolism and iconography of the city’s museums, monuments, and memorials, which was influenced by the classical architecture of ancient Greece and republican Rome. To the founding fathers, classicism represented democratic ideals of justice, liberty, and equality, which are protected by the Constitution.

Contemporary art curator Sarah Newman gave the class a private tour of Ellen Harvey: The Alien’s Guide to Washington, D.C. The students were propelled visually into the future in order to see our shared visual past that much more clearly. While shopping at Harvey’s souvenir stand, an eerie replica of the ubiquitous hot dog stands one finds on and around the Mall, we admired the beautiful and stark grisaille mixed media paintings of classical architecture and fragments of columns and a coffered dome. Students saw the architectural style we live with every day in a new light; in effect, with alien eyes.

an eerie replica of the ubiquitous hot dog stands one finds on and around the Mall… (with) grisaille mixed media paintings of classical architecture and fragments of columns.

In one gallery Harvey covered three walls with postcard images of classical buildings from around the world. This diagrammatic installation, beginning on one wall with simple orders and columns, and evolving into more complex orders and numbers of columns, invites the viewer to see the formal patterns within the classical idiom as it appears around the globe. Harvey imagined how aliens would interpret the ruins of our civilizations in the distant future. Her approach in this gallery demonstrates an uncanny similarity to our own attempts to understand the meaning and function of prehistoric ruins of ancient cultures, such as Stonehenge.

From this exhibition, however, we learn more about our culture than we could ever know about Stonehenge, namely that the classical idiom has universal appeal, and is adaptable to all kinds of ideology as well as climate and geography. Classicism is the language of power, pure and simple.

If you want to learn more about the museums and monuments of Washington, D.C., take this course next summer. If you want to see those same buildings and memorials in a new light, spend some time with Ellen Harvey: The Alien’s Guide to Washington, D.C.