Artomatic for the People

The semiannual community fine-arts fest is back — and bigger than ever

May 17, 2012

Maryland artist Eileen Williams, above, uses knotted jute fiber and other mixed media in her sculptures.

It’s Artomatic time again! This year, the D.C. area’s biggest unjuried arts extravaganza runs for five weeks and fills a gigantic former Department of Defense building in Crystal City, Va.. With 10 floors of work by local artists, it’s all a bit overwhelming. But that’s part of Artomatic’s charm.

“After our last event” — an eight-story affair above the Navy Yard Metro station in 2009 that drew a crowd of 70,000 — “we said we weren’t going to do anything bigger,” says Barry Schmetter, Artomatic’s event director. “Yet, here we are, with an even larger space.”

“I tell people Artomatic is the best free date in Washington,” Schmetter says. Better make that a few dates, unless your sweetheart has an incredible attention span and some really comfortable shoes.

Calling this Artomatic “bigger” than the last doesn’t really do it justice. The new venue has 380,000 square feet of space, and it’s packed with work by 1,300 visual artists exhibiting sculptures, photos, drawings, paintings, mobiles, metalwork, jewelry, comics, collages and more. There are also plenty of live-performance spaces for the 750 folks leading workshops or putting on dance, poetry, burlesque, wine tastings, and lectures — including even a “Burning Man for Beginners” talk. Then there’s still room for the food and drink vendors and an artists’ marketplace selling original works.

Artomatic debuted in 1999 with what seems like a modest showcase today: 350 artists displayed their work in the U Street neighborhood’s Manhattan Laundry building. Since then, the event’s been held intermittently; this year marks the eighth Artomatic.

The entry policy for artists is simple: Anyone can participate, as long as they pay a small fee, attend required orientation sessions and volunteer. Since this year’s location is so large, there was room for everyone who applied to participate; nobody got turned away. Of course, “any time you do something like that, you’re going to have people who are still learning their craft,” Schmetter says diplomatically. Translation: There’s good art, and then there’s … other art.

This egalitarian approach has garnered plenty of detractors in the past. Critics grumble that Artomatic is an amateur show; some compare it to a craft show, or a fine-arts Little League where everybody takes home a prize.

Victoria Reis, co-founder and director of D.C.-based arts non-profit and gallery Transformer, isn’t bothered by the range of talent at Artomatic, but rather by what seems to be disproportionate hoopla and resources devoted to the event. “There are nonprofit art organizations like Transformer and [the District of Columbia Arts Center] and others in the visual art community here in D.C. who are dedicated to having ongoing programs for artists and audiences, who are constantly on the hustle to get support,” Reis says. “It’s great for there to be some sort of opportunity for anyone and everyone who makes art to be able to get together and show their work, but I find it to be a really overwhelming visual experience.”

Cynthia Connolly, the visual arts curator for Arlington arts and community space Artisphere, believes Artomatic might indirectly benefit other arts organizations such as Transformer. Its value lies in its long-term contribution, Connolly says. “I would propose that the D.C. arts scene is a lot stronger than it was 15 years ago, and I would propose that Artomatic had a lot to do with that.”

Philippa Hughes, an art collector and “chief creative contrarian” for the D.C.-based arts group the Pink Line Project (who herself has hosted panel discussions at Artomatic in previous years), sees the event as essential to D.C.’s ongoing evolution as an arts city. “I think to have a rich arts scene, you just need to have as much art as possible in as many venues as possible,” she says. “I love going to galleries and museums, but people don’t just appear there; they have to start somewhere.”

Artomatic has indeed hosted early work by artists who have gone on to critical acclaim with shows in D.C. galleries and around the world, including street artist Kelly Towles, mixed-media artist Elizabeth Morrisette and photographer Frank Day. This year’s group likely holds more up-and-comers; we just have to sift through the Peeps dioramas and sunset photographs to find them.

Audience Participation

With 10 floors of fine art and live performances, this year’s Artomatic has something for everyone. Keep an eye out for some recurring themes — and these noteworthy exhibitors — with our handy Artomatic Bingo cards, downloadable here.

Eye of Ra Photography focuses on the nude form and its capacity to take on sculptural shapes. The “Body Language” series features models making letters with their bodies — including one piece that spells out the first few lines of the First Amendment. (10th floor)

Ben Claassen III has made a name for himself as the artist behind the disturbingly hilarious “Dirtfarm” comic in the Washington City Paper, as well as for his illustrations for the Baggage Check and DC Rider columns in the Washington Post Express. (Full disclosure, Claassen is an Express employee.) He’ll be showing a range of work at this year’s Artomatic. (10th floor)

Paul Sikora’s ethereal mobiles are made of materials such as photographic filters, bronze and aluminum welding rods and .007-millimeter-thick piano wire. (9th floor)

Sarah Noble, a planetary geologist, lets her day job inspire her colorful graphic paintings of astronauts, the moon and the solar system. (10th floor)

Matt Sesow’s vibrant canvases are filled with unsettling scenes and anguished figures, some painted in a Cubist style reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s. (11th floor)

Artomatic, 1851 South Bell St., Arlington; May 18-June 23 (opening reception Fri. 6 p.m.) free; Artomatic.org. (Crystal City)
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