Metro Weekly

Editor’s Pick: ‘Storied Strings: The Guitar In American Art’

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts presents the first exhibition to explore the guitar's symbolism in American art from the early 19th century to today.

Three Folk Musicians -- Romare Bearden
Three Folk Musicians — Romare Bearden

“Guitars figure prominently in the visual stories Americans tell themselves about themselves,” reads a press release from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which also asserts that “the guitar — portable, affordable, and ubiquitous — appears in American art more than any other instrument.”

The Richmond museum recently unveiled Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art, which it touts as “the first exhibition to explore the instrument’s symbolism in American art from the early 19th century to the present day.”

Curated by Dr. Leo Mazow, the show displays 125 works of art, including paintings, sculpture, works on paper, and music, plus 35 musical instruments, in a multimedia presentation highlighting the instrument’s cultural significance and the way its representation in art touches on issues of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and identity.

The exhibition is grouped into nine main sections — everything from “Hispanicization” to “Re-Gendered Instruments,” “Picturing Performance” to “Political Guitars” — plus smaller thematically arranged niche spaces, including The Blues, Women in Early Country Music, the Visual Culture of Early Rock and Roll, Hawaii-ana, and Cowboy Guitars.

The Ring -- Suzy Frelinghuysen
The Ring — Suzy Frelinghuysen
Home Ranch -- Thomas Eakins
Home Ranch — Thomas Eakins

Among the highlights are Thomas Hart Benton’s 1957 painting Jessie with Guitar, Otto Hagel’s 1958 print of Odetta, with the performer depicted strumming a guitar, the 1935 print by Dorothea Lange Coachella Valley-Mexican Laborers around Camp, and Thomas Cantwell Healy’s 1853 painting Charlotte Davis Wylie.

A series of recordings dubbed “Richmond Sessions ’22-’23” has been organized to complement the exhibition and in particular its focus on “the guitar as subject, symbol, and storyteller’s companion.”

Produced by Richmond’s In Your Ear studios in partnership with the museum, the series of recordings, which will be posted to the museum’s YouTube page upon release, will feature an eclectic roster of guitarists performing in a specially constructed studio set up in the exhibition space.

Jessie with Guitar — Thomas Hart Benton
Woody Guthrie -- Al Aumuller
Woody Guthrie — Al Aumuller
Julie -- Sue Hudelson
Julie — Sue Hudelson
Music Lives After -- Photo: Lonnie Holley
Music Lives After — Photo: Lonnie Holley

Folk musician Lucy Kaplansky launched the series earlier this week, with additional recordings on tap from Wilco’s Nels Cline, singer-songwriter Cat Dail with Felicia Collins, blues and roots artist Corey Harris, jazz artist Joel Harrison with multi-genre picker Anthony Pirog, The Bitter Liberals’ Charles Arthur, folk and blues artist Elizabeth Wise, and acoustic Black player Yasmin Williams.

On display through March 19, 2023 in the Altria Group and NewMarket Galleries on the Lower Level of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 North Boulevard, Richmond, Va. Tickets are $10 to $16. Visit www.vmfa.museum or call 804-340-1405.

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