'Artomatic': Treasures Hiding in Plain Sight

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

I was halfway out the door to check out "Artomatic 2007," the rambling, interdisciplinary arts festival temporarily occupying two floors of a glitzy Crystal City office tower, when my wife asked me not to take the car. It wasn't that she needed it, she explained. She just thought that the subway ride there (and the subsequent walk through the network of tunnels connecting the Metro station to the building) would be good for me as a critic.

"It's part of the aesthetic journey," she said.

Having been to every previous incarnation of the unjuried, uncurated local arts extravaganza -- this being the fifth installment since its birth in 1999 on the site of a former laundry -- I thought I knew what she meant. (Full disclosure: My wife, along with many of my artist friends, is a regular participant.) There's a numbness that can result from looking at the art of so many people (450 this year, give or take a few, the vast majority of whom aren't quite ready for prime time). A stroll through the bowels of the Crystal City underground, past the tile walls, empty barbershops and sandwich joints, would only toughen me up for the soul-crushing job at hand.

So let me say this before I get in too deep: I come to praise "Artomatic," not to bury it.

To anyone familiar with "Artomatics" past, it will come as no surprise that there's more to loathe than to love. But you know what? The ratio is no worse than at an off-price store like Syms, where you have to pick through racks and racks of stuff you'd never wear before -- maybe -- stumbling across that one amazing find. The long odds haven't stopped anyone from shopping there, and they won't keep me away from "Artomatic."

To be sure, a few better-known (not to mention just plain better) artists are always there to sweeten the pot. Highlights of this year's celebrity appearances include ceramicist Laurel Lukaszewski, whose all-black stoneware and all-white porcelain abstractions were featured in a beautiful show at Project 4 Gallery last summer. Lukaszewski's floor piece, "Flow (version 2)," is an "Artomatic" standout.

There are other ringers tucked among the rank and file. Elizabeth Lundberg Morisette, whose eccentric basketry and sculptural assemblages made from everyday objects were featured in a 2006 show at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, fills a room with her barnacle-like vessels of paper and wax. Nearby you'll also find the glass sculpture of Tim Tate, a hit at the recent Smithsonian Craft Show, as well as fine glasswork by Tate's Washington Glass School co-directors, Erwin Timmers and Michael Janis.

More thrilling, though, than running into familiar faces is the discovery of unsung talent that "Artomatic" affords. In an otherwise weak showing for photography, I was particularly impressed by two artists whose work is, if not new, at least new to me. Sharing a love of decay are Joanna Knox, a high school teacher whose moody color prints (shot with a 4-by-5 view camera) depict interiors of deteriorating buildings, and Phil Nesmith, whose postcard-size ferrotypes of cemeteries are made using an archaic technique involving iron-plate negatives.

As long as we're handing out prizes, I have to split the drawing honors as well. John M. Adams's "Restless Continuity," a site-specific wall drawing in graphite and cleaning solvent, creates a trompe l'oeil window of sorts in this maze of offices that was once home to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. I was equally fascinated by the scritchy-scratchy movement studies of Jessi Moore, based on videos of urban streets.

The ribbon for best conceptual use of space, hands down, goes to Kristina Bilonick and David F. Hartwell. Calling their installation "Time.Space.Memory," the artist couple explore ritual, performance and documentation, not only through Hartwell's photographs (shot at precisely five-mile intervals on the artist's 2005 road trip from Richmond to San Francisco) but also through Bilonick's multimedia installation inspired by the artist's elderly grandmother.

Honorable mentions:

Best Use of Live Grass. Believe it or not, there are two contenders, but the prize goes to Patrick Resing's "Untitled (For Duc Q Dinh)," incorporating grow lights and time-lapse video in a tongue-in-cheek homage to the former occupant of the office whose nameplate is still on the wall. [Video interview with the artist.]

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