On the Sunday before Valentine's Day, just getting inside the Georgetown party feels like trying to find a speak-easy. There are multiple doors off the alley, and if you're lucky, or if you've already tried the other three, you'll find the right entrance. But that's how it is with Art Soiree parties - it helps to be in the know to get in.
Inside, the L2 club is lit for scene. It's all exposed brick and high walls, dim enough for cool but bright enough to watch people watching art, and for them to watch you. This time, the featured work - a colorful digital collection of couples engaged in passion and whimsy called "My Guilty Pleasure" - is in 3-D. Check the coat, don the 3-D glasses, stop, stare, nod at the art. Then look around, and smile.
"Oh my God, this is such a cute painting," one young woman in a strapless number gushes to her friends.
Head for the bar while the DJ keeps a deep house mix bouncing off the walls.
There have been more than 30 themed Art Soirees since fall 2009.
Art galleries and museums are stuffy, and dancing all night at a club leaves you empty, says soiree host Sandro Kereselidze, 34. So he and girlfriend, Tatiana "Tati" Pastukhova, 23, got the idea for a hybrid social experience that they say was missing from the D.C. arts and social scene.
"We were looking for someplace where you could hang out, bring your friends, enjoy looking at something meaningful," Pastukhova says.
They came up with the Art Soiree, a D.C. re-imagining of an edgy Brooklyn studio party, but less bearded and hip and more flatironed and clubby.
For those who aren't into art f'real, f'real but love the idea of bonding creatively over drinks, it's the exhibit and the after-party - BAM! - all in one.
Just after 8 p.m. the crowd for the second annual "Single Valentine" Art Soiree is growing thick with red velvet wraps, black suede over-the-knee boots, sports coats and short skirts. Patrons, ranging in age from 20s to 50s, pause in front of the nearly two-dozen digital works. Dark figures are set against a cacophony of colors - beguiling women and captivated men, all lines and angles, looking vaguely animated, like the opening montage to the film "The Incredibles," sketched by hand, then digitally rendered.
Picture No. 7, "The White Russian," highlights a woman, hands on hips, towering above a man. Put on the 3-D glasses and the image becomes textured and powerful. "You actually see the stick figures come out," says Trupti Mehta, a physical therapy director from Arlington. "It feels like you're in a room full of people."
"I love abstract art, and I think this work is so beautiful, with all the colors," says her friend, Sheena Effendi, an Alexandria research analyst.
It's Mehta and Effendi's first Art Soiree. To persuade Effendi to come, "I told her it's supposed to be a different type of crowd," says Mehta. Unlike other D.C. clubs, "there's artwork, and it's more sophisticated. The crowd is more elite and professional."
Demian McGarry, an Arlington lawyer, and Briana Kurtz, an Arlington Pilates teacher, are also standing at "The White Russian." They're both soiree veterans. Briana modeled at the body art party.
"A lot of art exhibits have a stuffy atmosphere, cheap box wine and no music, whereas here, they synthesize art, music and eclectic crowd and a great venue," McGarry says.
"My favorite is number six," chimes in nearby friend, Kelly Tobin. "It reminds me of, like, the yin and yang with male and female and people dancing and worshiping the moon and love." The bass line to "Erotic City" is pounding overhead.
There are typically at least two soirees a month. The events, held at L2 since January 2010, draw several hundred. A few weeks ago, it was a photo exhibit. In January, paintings of local philanthropists. The "Winter Wonderland" show in late December featured musicians, a photo exhibit and ice sculpting.
The soirees, which cost $10 at the door, always feature local, little-known "artists next door" and have ranged from the Shakespeare-themed body art event to an exhibition of political cartoonists marking the first anniversary of the Obama presidency.
The artists neither pay to be featured nor are they paid. Art Soiree organizers don't get a commission on anything sold. They won't say how much they've made from the door but say the soirees have been successful. The overarching mission, Kereselidze and Pastukhova say, is exposure for little-known local talent and, essentially, to transform Washington into the arts capital of the nation.
"Art is how we express ourselves as human," Kereselidze says. "Especially D.C. - it's very international, very cultured. . . . Why should New York appreciate art more than us?"
Kereselidze, a native of the Republic of Georgia who has been in the United States for 17 years, and Ukrainian-born Pastukhova, who first came to America to go to high school, struck up a Facebook friendship and had been dating a short while when they threw their first soiree. It featured live jazz, photographs, paintings and a short film. More than 500 friends and friends of friends showed up for the free event in donated restaurant space on a Sunday afternoon. That signaled to the couple that something was missing in the D.C. social scene.
Kereselidze, whose father is a movie director and late mother ran an art school, was a clothing designer for a Georgetown boutique. Pastukhova, whose father is a painter, was getting her MBA and coordinating a program for international lawyers at George Washington University.
People are sometimes "overwhelmed by the formality" of art, Pastukhova says. There shouldn't just be "the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center." There should be small venues as well - places where a young model dressed only in body paint can serve as an icebreaker for singles or couples looking for an edgy night out.
"We don't have that same leisure time as our parents did, and a lot of people of our generation still have that creativity and pull for arts in themselves. We tried to combine appreciation of art in a more comfortable setting," Pastukhova says.
That notion of finding alternative ways to engage around art has gained traction even with some established voices. "There is every reason for some people to want their museum to be really in the classic way," says Johnnetta Cole, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. But young audiences want other kinds of experiences, "and we're in the process of understanding all of that."
On Friday, the African Art museum opened its doors after hours for a sold-out "Africa Underground," featuring a DJ, African and Brazilian food, exhibits and a crowd of largely younger people, "who would not perhaps come into this museum on Saturday afternoon," Cole says, "but in coming for this get down party [couldn't ] escape exquisite and extraordinary" works of African art."
Local artists who have been featured by Art Soiree agree. In early February, the watercolor-and-pencil portraits of 43 local philanthropists by self-taught artist Don Patron covered the walls of L2. Patron, who formerly worked at an HIV clinic and an art gallery, had been inspired to paint after a close friend - who saw art in everything - committed suicide. Patron, who exhibited at Peacock Cafe in May, "loved" the notion of club as canvas.
"I like any idea where it interacts people out of the norm," he said.
On Valentine's eve, snippets of art criticism filter through strains of Lady Gaga and tinkling ice.
"He's a director, so at the same time, there are always those kinds of film influences" in his work, says a large guy, gesturing to digital work No. 13, "Her Bird," a jagged silhouette of a woman with bird in palm.
The artist is clearly under a woman's influence, replies the young woman sitting across from the big guy. "He's in love."
"He" happens to be Sandro's brother, Gia Kereselidze, 44, a D.C.-based artist and film director who has shown at Cannes. "We had a hard time finding an artist to match the Valentine's Day theme," says Sandro, so they featured Gia's 20-piece "My Guilty Pleasure" collection, about the relationship between men and women.
"Art is everything and everything is art," Gia says. And when he creates, he "has to be in love, because nothing can be done in this world" without it.
Baltimore lawyer Gary Maslan, standing near "White Russian" with a cocktail in hand, has become a fan. He has already bought "White Russian" for $500 and is about to buy No. 17, "Contact," for $450, because of "the 3-D aspects, the dimensions and the passion of the piece."
"When I got up tonight, I didn't intend on buying a painting, but I saw it and I said, 'Whoa!' " Maslan enthuses. Gia is going to be famous one day, he predicts, "and it will be worth a lot of money."
By 10 p.m. a vocalist sings "The Nearness of You," couples dance in the large expanse near the unisex bathroom, and Maslan shows off his new purchase.
So many people have arrived it's getting hard to move. As you head out the door and others crowd to get in, it looks like a typical club scene, except for the 3-D glasses on the bar.