'Unmentionables' Sculpture Is Hung Out to Dry

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Managers of a downtown office building yanked a sculpture called "Unmentionables . . . then and now" from an exhibition last week after tenants complained that the art was inappropriate.

The offending art, by Joyce Zipperer, was installed with other artwork in the lobby of the Washington Square building at 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW. "Unmentionables" consists of 10 styles of women's underwear -- from old-fashioned bloomers to a skimpy thong -- all made out of metal and strung along a clothesline.

"It had been shown so many times and everybody just said they loved it, so this is quite a shock," Zipperer says. "It's funny when you think about it, because clotheslines used to be something you'd see in everybody's yard with all their laundry."

Shortly after the installation went up on Aug. 3, a group of tenants complained to the building's manager, Cynthia Muller. Muller wouldn't say which tenants objected to the art, but the artist and curator say they were lawyers from two of the building's resident law firms.

"The comments I heard were, it was too personal," Muller says.

People were upset about the last three garments on the clothesline: a brief and two thongs. The last one, which Zipperer calls "a tongue-in-cheek piece," had a copper fig leaf attached to the front.

Of all the office buildings downtown, Washington Square is perhaps the oddest place for an underwear-art controversy: One of its tenants is Victoria's Secret. The lingerie store, under renovation until fall, is just a few feet from where Zipperer's installation once stood. Victoria's Secret is known for its racy window displays of scantily clad mannequins.

A receptionist at the Arent Fox law firm, Joan A. Palmer, says that "Unmentionables" was inappropriate for a corporate lobby but that she would have loved it in the window of Victoria's Secret.

"I really didn't think it was artistic, and I taught art for nine years," Palmer says. "It didn't show me any value."

Despite her own objections to the artworks, Palmer thinks that it was "going a little far" for someone to complain to the management.

At first, Muller tried to broker a compromise between the parties involved. Zipperer whipped up two pairs of more conservative metal underwear to replace the controversial ones, even though "with the original pieces gone, the timeline becomes moot and compromises the statement of the piece." "Unmentionables" is about cultural change, the artist says.

A week later, Muller told Zipperer that the whole clothesline had to come down.

"She told me to replace it with 'anything but underwear,' " Zipperer says. She settled on "Chapeau," a large, silver-colored hat with stainless steel flowers on top.

"Unmentionables" has been shown about seven times since Zipperer created it in 2002, including at Zenith Gallery on Seventh Street NW and at an art festival in Fairfax. From February to May, Zipperer exhibited a wire screen corset with pantaloons and a black thong at Washington Square without incident.

Zipperer, a Springfield resident with a Mobile, Ala., accent, has been an artist for 35 years. She started creating feminine objects from masculine materials in 2000, when she learned how to weld.

Lerner Enterprises, which owns the building, requires all artists to sign contracts before showing their work at Washington Square. The contract states, "The work may be withdrawn from the exhibition by Washington Square ("Exhibitor") at its discretion at any time."

The show's curator, Richard Suib, has organized about 50 exhibitions for the building's lobby and can remember only one artwork -- a sculpture, 10 years ago -- that had to be pulled post-installation. The current exhibition, which doesn't have a theme, features 42 pieces by 23 artists and includes works such as "Salmon Run," a mixed-media sculpture of two fish by Andrea Uravitch, and "Ballet de Metro," a bronze statue by Gary Hughes of a group of people squished together on the Metro.

"There's a lot of positive things that [Lerner] does," Suib says. "They give local artists an opportunity to show their work. There are just certain guidelines. It's unfortunate that things have happened with the vehemence that we've seen here."

The Washington Square Invitational Sculpture Exhibition is on view through Oct. 31 at 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW, Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sunday noon-6 p.m. An artists' reception takes place 3-6 p.m. Sept. 6. 202-296-2800.

Many Hands Remake a Wall

Jalika Street waited for the school bus to Alice Deal Junior High School every morning at 14th Street and Colorado Avenue NW. She had the choice of staring at the drab brick wall of the Children's Medical Care Center or watching the Metrobuses come and go from the transfer station.

Now a 22-year-old graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, Street returned to her 16th Street Heights neighborhood this summer to paint a 9-by-75-foot, brightly colored mural on the wall. She painted key sections of the artwork, and recruited young campers from neighborhood recreation centers to paint 3-by-3-foot squares of the patchwork-quilt-style mural. Street encouraged them to work within the theme of Washington history, but the younger campers just stuck their palms in paint and made handprints. For her part, Street painted images of Howard University, the Alice Deal school mascot and the D.C. Caribbean Carnival, her favorite annual event.

Her goal for the project is to "increase youth's ownership of the area," she says, something she experienced when she helped paint a mural at the Twin Oaks Community Garden at 14th and Taylor streets NW while in high school at School Without Walls.

Curious passersby were also invited to pick up a paintbrush. Local artist G. Byron Peck, who created the mural of Duke Ellington on U Street NW, helped Street with logistics, such as figuring out what kind of paint to use.

"I wanted lots of people to get that experience, people who don't necessarily consider themselves artists," she says. "I barely consider myself a painter, so getting the community involved was the only way the project was doable."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company