Art That Seduces as It Shocks

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008

Not every art exhibition has a color scheme, but "Noche Crist: A Romanian Revelation" does.

And how.

It's pink everywhere. In the art. On the walls of the American University Museum, which have been painted the color of Pepto-Bismol to match the paintings. The cover of the catalogue? Bright pink. Even the digital slide show and video interviews about the artist's life playing constantly on two monitors have pink title screens. The furnishings in a walk-in, room-size installation in the center of the gallery (made up to suggest the boudoir of a rather eccentric courtesan, complete with bed) are keyed off a single hue. Guess what it is.

It's a shade of pink whose unofficial name, chosen by Romanian-born, Washington-based artist Noche Crist (1909-2004) as the best backdrop to her paintings, cannot be printed in a family newspaper. Nor can many of the works, which tend to celebrate the delights of the flesh in a way that ranges from PG-13 to NC-17. Parts of the show, characterized by copious nudity and images of not infrequent coupling, ought to be accompanied by a parental advisory.

Instead, it opens with this warning, posted on a sign near the show's entrance: "This is not a traditional art exhibit -- it is an evocation of the essence of an artist who integrated her art and life with her surroundings."

But then again, Crist was not a traditional artist. Most art historians would probably place the largely self-taught painter in the catch-all category of "outsider." To be sure, some of her work (e.g., the many cutout paintings studded with bits of mirrored glass and characterized by a charmingly awkward style of folk-art representation) would feel right at home at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum.

Yet Crist was in many ways the consummate insider. Embraced by the local cognoscenti, many of whom are seen on video offering fond memories of her indomitable, lusty spirit (and legendary, champagne-soaked parties), the artist was herself a work of art. That, at least, is the opinion of Olga Hirshhorn, Crist's friend, a collector and widow of Joe Hirshhorn, whose collection forms the basis of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

In a documentary accompanying the show, Olga Hirshhorn reminisces about the first time she and her husband saw Crist's work: a pair candlesticks in the shape of naked, buxom mermaids, with a ring of cheesy prisms hanging from the bowls. (Look for them in the show. You can't miss them.)

"Oh, that's awful," Hirshhorn remembers thinking. And yet she kept coming back to them. By the end of the evening, she had to have them.

I can relate to Hirshhorn's initial reaction. Maybe it's all the pink, which sends me into the kind of sugar shock I get from eating too many cupcakes. Maybe it's embarrassment at the in-your-face eroticism of Crist's art, which sometimes feels like an uncomfortable cross between postmodern do-me feminism and the old-fashioned notion that women belong in the bedroom, not the boardroom. "I like the woman in the boudoir," Crist says in a video interview, "not the woman with the typewriter."

And maybe I'm over-thinking all this.

Because I can also relate to the way that Hirshhorn ultimately found herself seduced by Crist's goofy, garish art. I want to not like it. I want to not even look at it. But, like the mermaids and sirens of myth, her dancing, debauched women pull my eye inexorably toward them in a way I can't explain.

Noche Crist: A Romanian Revelation Through July 27 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Contact:202-885-1300. Hours: Open Tuesday-Sunday 11 to 4; also open one hour before performing arts events in the Katzen. Admission: Free.

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