Seven at the Warehouse Theatre and Galleries
This review was first posted at Thinking About Art.
Like the Wizard of Oz, the curator disappears behind the art in a good group exhibition and the dynamics of the show appear to spring naturally from the work itself. Group shows have the potential to create a dialogue between works of art that may never have otherwise met. Similarities form surprising connections and differences in points of view are more striking when the work of diverse artists is seen in one place.
Behind this particular curtain is Lenny Campello - gallerist, blogger, artist, and vocal advocate for the DC art scene. Campello took on no easy task - select a coherent and representative group show out of the thousands of slides in the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran artist registry - and threw in the complication of the Warehouse's labyrinth of exhibition spaces. He could have taken the easy way out and hung the show as a straight showcase of local talent. Instead he created seven separate but interrelated multimedia exhibits. This was the genesis of Seven, an exhibition of art by WPAC members at the Warehouse Galleries.
The narrow passages and unfinished rooms of the Warehouse reminded me of a very compact Art-o-Matic. The comparison is probably unfair, but stayed with me for better or for worse. Seven gains from a distillation of the best local offerings but potentially could have lacked the certain X factor I love about Art-o-Matic - the oddball experience you don't see coming, the sense of freedom and nothing to lose. Happily, Campello retains some of this quirky promise.
The ground floor gallery is split between psychologically tinged figurative work on one side of the room and abstraction on the other. The juxtaposition would be intriguing if not for the blandness of the abstract work, which is redeemed only by Rebecca Cross's whimsical Platters from the Guitar Series, 2004-05. Instead of interacting the two halves of the room feel like separate and unequal exhibitions, making this the weakest of the seven galleries. The most questionable choice was Kristen Helgadottir's Frosty Midnight, 1997 - a terrible pseudo-Jackson Pollock with a jarring blue background.
Two pieces in particular help prop the room up. Melissa Ichiuji's I am beautiful and Everybody loves me, 2004, crouches in one corner waiting for a second glance. The battered wooden armchair features a gently naughty alteration - the wheel of feathers embedded in the seat begs the viewer to give it a try. Also worth a close inspection is Ben Tolman's drawing The Garden of Earthly Delights, 2002-04. Tolman's intricately rendered tangle of abstractions and Bosch-like demons surround a central cathedral structure. The building is flanked by two figures - the artist and his muse - given equal pictorial weight, and therefore in the language of iconography equal importance. With its blood red border and black mat, this is the most handsomely framed work in the show - and the attention to detail helps the drawing escape what could have easily felt like a run-of-the-mill Goth-kid doodle.
Four rooms make up the building's second floor. The art hung in the hall connecting the rooms is uniformly uninteresting (mostly run-of-the-mill still life paintings), but the galleries hold the show's most challenging work. The gallery closest to the street is full of odd forms and an unsettling edginess. Mark Jenkins' now familiar ghostly tape sculptures hover at the edges, oblivious to Linda Hesh's weak political installation (her themes of identity and racism have been better and more subtly addressed by artists such as Lorna Simpson). The red, horn-like protuberances of Graham Caldwell's exquisite glass and steel sculpture burst from the wall with a joyous blare that bounces off of Joseph Barbaccia's sexualized tools. Sustenance, 2005 is a pair of ladles holding perfectly carved wooden breasts. Naked Aggression, 2004, brings to mind a phrase from a novel by Dorothy Dunnett - "Music, the knife without a hilt" but this knife cannot be wielded without taking a lifelike dick in hand. The piece resonates with complex associations: between masculinity and aggression, violence and masturbation, but refuses the viewer a definite meaning.
The two center galleries have the easiest themes to discern : the body, and text as form. "Text" is probably an inaccurate label for this group of work, which more often than not manipulates and distorts words until they become something more than letters on a page. Denise Wolff takes crumpled pages from the writings of theorists who have influenced contemporary art and photographs them like craggy rocks. Art students the world over can appreciate the metaphor - grasping some of these works can be akin to scaling Mount Everest. The sliced texts of Mark C. Boyd's blackboard paintings frustrate the viewer's desire to read the words traced there. The pieces reflect on the impossibility of communication and the imprecision of written language. The blackboard background implies that the roots of our difficulties may lie in the manner we acquire these skills. This abstracting of text leads to J.T. Kirkland's superb wood pieces. Kirkland's pieces gain an added resonance next to the other more blatantly textual works in the room. In Expanse, 2005, drilled holes meander across the wood surface like a reverse Braille, creating a kind of language of negative space. Beyond the more obvious relationship of the work to minimalism, land art and drawing, the methodical precision and deep love of natural beauty recall the art of ancient Egypt. It may sound like a counterintuitive statement to make about such a sculptural work, but Expanse is the best painting in the show.
The next gallery's installation is primarily about the body as a physical presence. Body, not nude - none of these works resemble the classic nude, and are all the better for it. Photography makes the strongest showing, from Samantha Wolov's radiant slide projection of bodies in heightened states of ecstatic carnality, such as Orgasm #2 (at right) to Fierce Sonia's quirky and tactile Choking on her eggs and Fire Starter, 2005. The heavy-handed Allegory of a Gay Bashing, 2000, is the room's Achilles heel. A Christ-like figure of a castrated man is strung up against a graffitied wall. The ham-handedness (especially the disconcerting presence of a cute puppy and kitten) of Scott Brook's painting undermines the potential power of the subject. A more mysterious icon is White Sugar Lily, 2005. In Susan Jamison's tempera painting a naked woman tattooed with twining flowers wears a collar of lilies, her head orbited by bees. The stillness and quiet strength of this work holds its own against the eroticism of Wolov and Sonia. The funniest work in the show is Ancestral Portraits: Dick(s), 2005 by Manon Cleary. Ancenstral Portraits is a collection of little snapshots of male genitalia altered by the addition of stuck-on googly eyes, making them resemble of all things the Muppets. One note they may be, but Cleary has managed to find humor in something our society still tends to take overly seriously.
The last gallery on the second floor is filled with an ethereal installation by Alessandra Torres. Photographs from Torres' Portable Winter Series hang on two walls of the small room. Entering the gentle hush is like stepping into a strange myth, where a spirit in white wanders the wintry landscape, dusting the world with snow. Her clothes hang in the room's closet. The edges and corners of the room itself are sprinkled with drifts of white powder. A vitrine occupies the center of the room, containing a miniature of the landscape in the photographs. Torres' melding of installation, photography and performance brings to mind Ana Mendieta's works in nature, though Torres work is far more surreal than Mendieta's earth-bound rituals.
Kathryn Cornelius has the sole video work in the show. Resolve was projected in a darkened gallery on the third floor on the opening night of the exhibit and has since been moved to a flatscreen in the streetside second floor gallery. The video records a women in a black evening gown desperately vacuuming the sand from a section of beach. This tragically comical action goes beyond a feminist comment on "women's work" to encompass any of the repetitive and sometimes ridiculously futile aspects of our everyday lives.
The show's last gallery shares space with the Warehouse cafe. The heavy hitters - Chan Chao and Sam Gilliam - both have pieces in this room. The curatorial vision here is the most difficult to determine, a result of both the work selected and the function of the space. The pieces are strong, especially Chao's simple but lovely nude photographs, but seem to have little in common beyond their potential salability. Perhaps that is the point.
Washington is a far more conservative town than New York or Los Angeles, and it shows in the region's art production. With cutting edge, international exhibitions a regular part of the Hirshhorn Museum's schedule and New York only a four-hour drive away it's surprising that there isn't more challenging, thought-provoking art created and shown here. True to his curator's statement, the work that Campello has selected seldom pushes the boundaries of contemporary art. Instead Seven is a representation of some of the best Washington-area art. With the exception of the mostly tepid painting, the work is strong and the thoughtful installations more engrossing than a mere group hang. The success of the show, at least among the DC art crowd, should encourage more exhibits of local artists and add to the development of an audience here for the art-making that exists between touristy paintings of landmarks and the sometimes hermetic world of the professional galler/museum scene.
Seven runs at the Warehouse Galleries through September 4th.
Images taken from the websites of the artists and used with permission.