Stranger Things

Media - 1976.48.8A - SAAM-1976.48.8A-F_1 - 76541
Clarence Schmidt, Untitled, One of a Group of Distorted Dolls, 1966-1971, molded and painted plastic, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William C. Lipke, 1976.48.8F
A photograph of Sara Snyder
Sara Snyder
Head of External Affairs & Digital Strategies
October 31, 2017

It has been a bumper season for eerie exhibitions at SAAM and the Renwick Gallery, from our “dollhouses of death,” to an installation of ominous train tracks, to the dark and mysterious world of lumiawhose smoky wisps beckon like spirits from the beyond.

Inspired by this Halloween mood, as well as this week’s welcome return of Netflix favorite, Stranger Things, I decided to take a look in the collection for artworks that might not feel so out of place in The Upside Down.

She’s our friend, and she’s crazy

Though this portrait is over a century old, somewhere under that blonde mop do I detect shades of a girl with psychokinetic abilities and a love of Eggo waffles?

Media - 1983.114.21 - SAAM-1983.114.21_1 - 7572
Kenyon Cox, Untitled, Portrait of a Young Girl, ca. 1900, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Ambrose Lansing, 1983.114.21

The vanishing of Will Byers

In her 1914 work, Child of the Ages, Da Loria Norman depicts a young boy, kneeling and aglow with innocence, against the dark nave of a cathedral.  He is an allegorical figure, just like Will Byers: a universal symbol of the essential humanity that must be protected from the dark forces in our walls...and within ourselves.

Media - 1979.137.2 - SAAM-1979.137.2_1 - 120552
Da Loria Norman, Child of the Ages, ca. 1914, pastel, watercolor, and gold paint on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Sherwood Norman, 1979.137.2

I don’t care if anyone believes me 

The dark mood of Isami Doi’s wood-engraved print, From the Book of Verse by the Smoking Lamp, I Turn to Watch the Phantom Shadows, is probably one that poor, haunted Joyce Byers could relate to.

Media - 1971.319.13 - SAAM-1971.319.13_1 - 73714
Isami Doi, (The Wayward Muse, portfolio) From the Book of Verse by the Smoking Lamp, I Turn to Watch the Phantom Shadows, 1952, wood engraving on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Baum in memory of Edith Gregor Halpert, 1971.319.13

Hey, a flower has gotta eat

The designers of the concept art behind the faceless Demogorgon have said that their inspiration included both flowers and snapping turtles.  I'd also like to suggest that someone create a fictitious monster based on Robert Mickelsen's glass piece Organism Series--CarnivoreThose spines and tendrils! 

Media - 2000.36A-F - SAAM-2000.36A-F_1 - 72124
Robert Mickelsen, Organism Series--Carnivore, 1999, lampworked, blown, sculpted, sandblasted, and oil painted glass, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of an anonymous donor, 2000.36A-F, © 1999, Robert A. Mickelsen

I Am...Doll Parts

Clarence Schmidt was known for his monumental environmental sculpture on Ohayo Mountain, in Woodstock, New York, which he constructed from found objects and recycled materials.  Let's just say that some of his found objects were creepier than others.

Media - 1976.48.8A - SAAM-1976.48.8A-F_2 - 76542
Clarence Schmidt, Untitled, One of a Group of Distorted Dolls, 1966-1971, molded and painted plastic, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William C. Lipke, 1976.48.8F

Handsome Devil

Devil on a Root Monster is a piece of folk art that manages to be simultaneously sinister and also kind of adorable. The artist, Miles Carpenter, would gather roots and branches from around his home in Waverly, Virginia, and carve them into fantastic monsters, allowing the natural shape of the wood to inspire him.

Media - 1997.124.54A-C - SAAM-1997.124.54A-C_2 - 125889
Miles Burkholder Carpenter, Devil on a Root Monster, 1974, painted wood, fur, leather, synthetic cord, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Chuck and Jan Rosenak and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 1997.124.54A-C

Sheet Show

The imposing Ghost Clock, Wendell Castle’s 1985 trompe l’oeil masterpiece, is popular with museum visitors year round, but come October it is all too easy to imagine the mahogany sculpture gracing the drawing room of haunted mansion.

Media - 1989.68 - SAAM-1989.68_2 - 118457
Wendell Castle, Ghost Clock, 1985, bleached Honduras mahogany, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1989.68, © 1985, Wendell Castle

Barb, chill

Was there ever a more ominous suburban swimming pool than the one where poor Barb meets her fate in the first season of Stranger Things? Bill Owen’s 1980 photograph echoes the mood, dark shadows encroaching on a place usually meant to signify “fun,” raising questions in my mind about who (or what) lurks outside the frame.

Media - 1990.38.77 - SAAM-1990.38.77_1 - 51535
Bill Owens, Pool, from the Los Angeles Documentary Project, 1980, chromogenic print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts through the Photography Museum of Los Angeles, 1990.38.77, © 1980, Bill Owen

Happy Halloween, and Merry Binge-Watching!


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