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Mr. Hemphill's New Neighborhood

Group Show Opens Space On 14th Street

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 2, 2004; Page C05

Longtime Georgetown gallery owner George Hemphill opened the doors to his brand-new 14th Street digs two weeks ago. He follows a small wave of dealers decamping to the burgeoning gallery neighborhood. Hemphill's gallery and attendant offices occupy a sizable portion of 1515 14th St. -- the gallery building where Andrea Pollan's Curator's Office and Annie Gawlak's G Fine Art have set up shop.

The space is very Hemphill: marble foyer. Wood floor stained black. The dealer eschewed the open-plan industrial look you'll find in Gawlak's gorgeous showroom one floor below. Where G is bright and expansive, Hemphill is dimmer and its floor plan regimented. Generous windows illuminate the gallery staff's chic offices, while art viewing is sequestered in an artificially lighted L-shaped enfilade. Though the 14th Street gallery's footprint is larger than Hemphill's former space, the new digs feel tight.

Newcomer Anne Rowland stands out with an ominous image of the suburbs. (Hemphill Fine Arts)

What the gallery gets right is a smarter, more flexible layout. Divided into a trio of zones, the shop can accommodate up to three small shows simultaneously. A mini-room-within-a-room permits intimate viewing of video art -- currently a rare commodity in Hemphill's repertoire. Such architecture hints at an ambitious gallery program to come.

Inaugurating the new space is a hodgepodge group exhibition featuring more than 20 artists whose sole point of commonality is their membership in the gallery's stable. Long-term friends of the gallery will recognize the names: Joe Mills, William Christenberry, William Willis. Individually, they're fine; hanging together, they don't cohere. Among the gallery's few new additions, photographer Anne Rowland stands out.

Her color picture of a cluster of McMansions sprouting in the suburbs features a dark, roiling neo-Romantic cloud cover -- a portent, perhaps, of subdivision apocalypse.

The show isn't a knockout, but then one of its ilk hardly could be. We'll have to wait a little longer to see how Hemphill maximizes his gallery's new home.

Chan Chao at Numark

I stepped into "Echo," Chan Chao's latest show at Numark, and wanted to step right back out.

Twenty just-over-life-size portraits of naked women ring the gallery's walls. Yet the mood isn't sexy. Or playful. It's utterly vulnerable and uncomfortable. For you and me, for sure, and even more so for Chao's subjects.

The Washington artist has applied the same clinical, pseudo-journalistic approach he used on the pro-democracy guerrillas of Burma -- those pictures were a hit at the 2002 Whitney Biennial -- to naked women, many of whom are the artist's friends or associates. Despite Chao's attempts at evenhandedness, or perhaps because of them, the results feel exploitative and manipulative.

Gallery materials talk up Chao's rendering of the "humanity" of his naked subjects. The press release speaks of pictures that "challenge notions of the idealized female human form."

Hardly. The show is in fact a catalogue of the female form. You walk through looking at a menu of body parts -- breasts, nipples, hips, thighs. These aren't perfect bodies but very, very attractive ones, women in their twenties and thirties, and none likely larger than a size 8. A few of the women are even very pretty.

Most of the women pose with hands clasped protectively in front of them, or uncomfortably at their sides, or with shoulders slightly hunched. (There are some exceptions, including a few defiant poses and one sitter who grabs her breasts in a move reminiscent of certain illicit Web sites.) They're photographed in domestic scenes inside their homes, in their kitchens or against their dining tables. The setting hints at intimacy but doesn't assuage the general feeling of uneasiness. If anything, such a background is slightly creepy.

And what about the women? You sense they are concerned with looking good. They're wearing a little makeup or holding in their stomachs.

Several booked waxing appointments for the occasion, judging from the tidiness of their nether regions. Though most lend their full names to the works' titles, one withholds her surname. Another, belatedly terrified that her image was used on gallery publicity, requested that her picture not be published by journalists like me. (She's lucky -- The Washington Post won't print any of these photos anyway.)

That the gallery tries to play the work off as sanitized and "human" -- no mention of sex or soft-core pornography -- strikes me as a load of hooey.

What bothers me about this show is Chao's apparent lack of interest in commenting on what he's doing. He simply participates, albeit with a studied attempt at the clinical, ungendered approach. (Which makes me wonder why he didn't alternate these pictures of women with naked pictures of men.) Each picture has the same cool sense of itself, the same assured tone, consistent lighting and flawless execution. Individuality is erased even as the individual sitter's uneasiness comes through.

Chao is no stranger to subtler strains of exploitation. The same photojournalistic impulse fed his pictures of the guerrillas in Burma. Those images got attention because of their political subject matter. Here, Chao's subject again guarantees talk.

There's a significant point to be gleaned from each picture's title, which consists of the woman's full name along with a month and day -- presumably the date the photo was taken. "Deborah Rowe, May 14," and "Mary Woodall, August 16" are two examples. First, such titling sounds perilously close to a Lothario's catalogue of conquests. Second, and more subtly: That Chao omitted the year the picture was taken is the equivalent of eliminating the documentary style conceit he's already established. That leaves his pictures to operate somewhere between documentary and fiction, which is hardly the "honest psychological portrait" the gallery promises.

Opening on 14th Street at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-234-5601, to Dec. 23.

Chan Chao: Echo at Numark Gallery, 625-27 E St. NW, Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 pm., 202-628-3810, to Dec. 18.

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