Editors' pick

D.C. Arts Center Decathlon

Mixed Media

Editorial Review

Stretching their artistic talents

By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Jan. 13, 2012

Art becomes spectator sport when the DC Arts Center hosts its first decathlon with 10 media - textiles, painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, collage, sound, video, conceptual art and sculpture - standing in for javelin, shot put and other feats of fitness. But while the Olympic event may be a man's world, the four finalists turned out to be local female artists Shanthi Chandrasekar, Lee Gainer, Lisa Rosenstein and Mary Woodall.

It may sound like a gimmick in the vein of such popular reality television shows as "Top Chef" and "Project Runway," but the exhibition of the final four's work proves to be a mental exercise for viewers as well as for artists. The show is less about winners and losers than about worthy questions (and occasionally answers) on the nature of art, including: Can an audio clip convey meaning more deeply than a photograph? Does a conceptual artist need to master printmaking? And with so many artists combining different forms of media, are distinctions even necessary?

In the case of Chandrasekar's black-and-white body of work, the underlying motif arose from her childhood in India and watching weavers. A photograph of a line of strings, taken in her home town, affords a fairly straightforward chronicle of an antiquated weaving technique using safety pins. But an audio clip - in which the slow-paced sounds of manual weaving are drowned out by the loud, whirring clickety-clack of machinery - reveals the artist's fascination with science and evolution, not to mention the chaos of progress. It becomes difficult to imagine one work without the other; the visual sets the scene, while the auditory component complicates the view.

Similarly, Rosenstein's pieces build upon one another, examining the ways people quantify time. Her drawing - a massive scroll filled with rows of uniquely patterned squares - reveals both the singularity and banality of each day leading up to the decathlon. It is at once mathematically regimented and abstract. Her print piece, meanwhile, consists of paper cutouts shaped like eggs, the back of which reveal newspaper clippings of obituaries, beside gloves. The impact here is immediate and emotional, and the close connection between birth and death more explicitly defined. Yet the poignant clarity of one piece doesn't take away from the other so much as build on its momentum.

On a lighter note, Gainer's entries grew out of a series of prints, later turned into a 2009 book titled "Two Months Salary." The pieces are a tongue-in-cheek take on the marketing scheme turned diamond-purchasing gospel (according to DeBeers) that men should spend two months of their annual pay on an engagement ring. Each print displays nine rings based on the two months "rule" for various occupations, from farmer to funeral director to A list actor. The point is clear, and the delivery cleverly wry. But the rest of Gainer's work proves her talents beyond conceptualization. Her drawing for the show - a composite heart crafted from meticulously drawn diamond rings - demonstrates an adroit hand and also a more complicated view; the gems are beautifully rendered but represent flashy stand-ins for love.

No collection speaks to the potentially paralyzing task of defining a medium better than Woodall's. The Jessup native created art that explores the binary nature of gender, especially the distinct roles she observed growing up in a blue-collar town. She said she trawled Crazy Ray's junkyard in Woodbine for materials and, for her painting submission, planned to use a section of a car exterior and strip it of color as a sort of anti-painting. Instead, she settled on the red hood of an old Opel and used polish to "paint" it as a representation of women's work commingling with a traditional masculine symbol of automotive speed and power. You might call it a metalwork sculpture or settle on defining it as conceptual. Regardless, it makes for an arresting image beside Woodall's textile entry - a peep show of an apron made from exploded airbags - and her sculpture crafted from a car part and tube covered in a crocheted creation.

The gold medalist will be announced at the end of the show's run in February, but it seems like a needless formality. When a show provides both engaging work and food for thought, everyone is a winner.