washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Galleries

At Curator's Office, a Small But Impressive Work of Bodies

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page C05

Don't be put off by its size: Last weekend the 14th Street space called Curator's Office opened a tiny group show of contemporary photographs -- just six small-scale pictures in all -- that's got muscle enough to tackle some big issues. Called "The Staged Body," the exhibition collects artists whose primary MO is choreographing and posing bodies -- nude or clothed, depending. Though some are shot with the intention of producing photographs, others document performances and result in two separate artworks: The action itself, which only a lucky few bear witness to, and a two-dimensional photographic document.

Though bodies are this show's ostensible subject, the pictures speak just as eloquently about the state of photo-based artwork. Photographers today are expert directors and choreographers as well as portraitists. It's a long way from Henri Cartier-Bresson's 20th-century notion of the "decisive moment," that split second when artists supposedly stumbled upon compelling compositions. If anything, the pictures assembled in "The Staged Body" confirm that photography no longer bears any resemblance to photography in the past century's sense. If anything, it's a lot closer to the way old-fashioned figurative painting used to be.

Pixelated landscapes for the digital age: A scene from "These Things Happen 2," one of Brandon Morse's computer-generated videos on view through Saturday at Strand on Volta. (Courtesy Of The Artist)

Artists Spencer Tunick and Justine Kurland fancy themselves something like film directors, selecting and posing their actors. Tunick stages events where hundreds of naked people assemble in public space; Kurland invites young women to pose in her bucolic tableaux.

These actions come with agendas attached. In her best-known work, Kurland places plump young heroines in verdant settings. "The Family" finds a small troupe of girls frolicking naked in the tall grass. The artist contends that her pictures imagine a blissful, girl-centric world; her rhetoric is mostly anti-male. Yet because a picture like "The Family" is so sugary in spirit -- look at the girls' blissed-out gazes -- it hardly differentiates itself from titillating photos of submissive girls, which are exactly the pictures Kurland purports to undermine.

Tunick's politics are clearer. In inviting a group of naked men and women to lie down in a gritty city alley, he transforms nakedness into something less titillating and more political. The bodies block passage on the road like a group of hippie protesters. The carpet of flesh is about as sexy as a halibut at the fish market.

Gender issues come front and center in this show, too. Mary Coble photographs "drag kings" -- women who dress as men -- yet her picture here isn't a portrait but a body with the head cropped out. The focus on taped-up breasts and stuffed briefs mirrors the emotional tugs and pushes that Coble's subjects experience. In a similar vein, Rineke Dijkstra's beachside portrait of a pudgy baby with her legs spread wide forces us into the decidedly uncomfortable position of voyeurs, despite the fact that the girl's genitals aren't fully developed. At what age, exactly, does sexuality count?

Though Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry's portrait of the street urchin "Richard" was made in the context of a political artwork about San Francisco street kids, here, divorced of that context, the picture recalls historic portraiture. The baroque image takes its chiaroscuro shadows from strategically positioned studio lights. For Noah Angell, who stages events in which he mimics the people he observes -- here in a haunting color picture of the artist playing a young man he once saw on the Metro -- the resulting image also speaks to painterly origins. Angell's photo calls to mind a gorgeous canvas by Gerhard Richter of his daughter Betty turning her head from the viewer. That canvas, in turn, brings to mind Vermeer's virtuosity with light. Like "The Staged Body" itself, Angell's picture is richer than it first appears.

Athena Tacha at Marsha Mateyka

Area artist Athena Tacha is best known for her landscape architecture and public works. Recently retired from teaching, she's had time to create the intimate wall pieces on view in "Shields and Universes: Sculptures and Drawings" at Marsha Mateyka.

A delicate counterpoint to her macho outdoor works, the wall sculptures on view are made from accumulated organic materials -- seashells of several types, feathers, cicada parts. For "17 Year Shield," she masses countless cicada exoskeletons into a round form more than 2 1/2 feet across. Several hundred glistening, ear-shaped abalones make up "700 Aegean Dives: Double-Sided Shield for Ellen." Tacha's works on paper, such as the exquisite "Singularity #6" composed of beads smaller than caviar, display a similar delicacy with man-made materials.

Many of these works are made of things meant to protect otherwise vulnerable animals. That they are formed into shields so fragile refutes the very notion of protection. Tacha's work suggests the inevitability of death but insists that there is beauty in our attempts at eluding it.

Brandon Morse at Strand on Volta

Today, tomorrow and Saturday are the last days to see the eerie video projections by Brandon Morse, a young techie who teaches in the University of Maryland art department. Though composed of several separate pieces, "These Things Happen," his show at Strand on Volta, feels like a single installation united by a spare electronic soundtrack.

Some of his computer-generated images are of clouds and swarms. They call to mind the movements of tribes, of insects and platelets. The power of the group supersedes that of individuals. Other works -- my two favorites, in fact -- incorporate retro-style projectors screening videos of slowly changing skies and lapping beachside waves. It's tough to remember that these manufactured images aren't home movies.

Though a visit to "These Things Happen" may be akin to watching the clouds go by, Morse's images have a way of sticking with you. His moving images are the pixelated heirs to brooding romantic landscapes, yet with decidedly contemporary concerns.

The Staged Body at Curator's Office, 1515 14th St. NW, second floor, Thursday-Saturday noon-6 p.m. (gallery closed Dec. 23-Jan. 3), 202-387-1008, to Jan. 22.

Athena Tacha at Marsha Mateyka, 2012 R St. NW, Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-328-0088, to Dec. 23.

Brandon Morse at Strand on Volta, 1531 33rd St. NW, Saturday 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and by appointment, 202-285-0567, through Saturday.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company