Jamming an ambitious new art festival into the Skyline Hotel, an outpost of mid-century modern cool in Southwest D.C., was never going to be easy. Designed by the Miami architect Morris Lapidus in the early 1960s, the Skyline has small rooms, low ceilings, narrow hallways and conference space better scaled to a philately convention or mahjong tournament than a major art fair. But it has buzz and it’s owned by the Rubell family, who have emerged as major players in the Washington contemporary art scene.
So the more than 80 exhibitors at the debut of the (e)merge Art Fair, which opened Thursday night, were forced to adapt their displays, and sometimes the art, to spaces that were far from congenial. Electrical wires taped to the ceiling powered supplemental lighting. Windows were covered over to provide more wall space. One gallery covered the beds and furniture in black plastic garbage bags, making it look like a crime scene.
In Room 228 they were handing out flashlights to help visitors see the work of Aime Mpane, a Congolese artist who uses paint and roughly hewn plywood to create mask-like forms. In another room, occupied by the Frankfurt-based Galerie Anita Beckers, the host began to despair as the sun set.
“I’m going to have to go out and get lights first thing tomorrow,” she said. It was a shame. Hard to see in the gloaming were delicate and intriguing photographs by Christiane Feser, who uses multiple images and a complicated process of cutting and editing to create striking final prints, reminiscent of Mondrian and Moholy-Nagy.
Yet the hotel turned out to be both a challenge and boon for those bringing work to (e)merge, billed as Washington’s latest best hope of creating an art fair that will gain international notice. Previous attempts have fizzled, and ongoing efforts to present unjuried art fairs, such as Artomatic, have been popular but not critical successes. (E)merge is dedicated to younger, emerging international artists, vetted by committee, and it includes longtime D.C. gallerists Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith of Conner Contemporary Art among its organizers. Whether it challenges New York’s Armory Show or Miami Beach’s Art Basel will depend on whether it attracts a critical mass of people who actually buy art. But in terms of the quality of work on display, it has already moved the needle by Washington standards.
For all of the physical challenges presented by the hotel, it functioned as a social fishbowl, and a cruel but effective first test of the art on display. You could learn as much about the art by inhabiting the dead spaces as by following the opening night throngs. In the garage nobody seemed to be paying much attention to Adam Lister’s “Brave New World,” a construction of painted wood, string and metal pieces that looked a bit like a Rube Goldberg device as re-imagined by a De Stijl designer. A small but curious focal point in its long, horizontal construction was a model of an ancient pyramid site, made tenuous by nearby strings, taut and suspended in midair by small magnets. The work needs pruning, but it speaks clearly about the contingent nature of history, the chain of unlikely connections and accidents it takes for something ideal, or grand, or memorable to emerge and pass the test of time.