From DC to NY

Washington Artists Head to New York City

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It's the standard advice to give to a Washington artist.

"Head to New York. That's where your future is."

But do any of us advice-givers look into what happens when an artist takes it?

The past few months have brought that question home. First, there was the latest show by Ian Whitmore, one of Washington's most promising young painters. Except that, at his January opening at G Fine Art in Logan Circle, he revealed that he'd moved his promise to Brooklyn.

Then Whitmore's work came down to make room for G's current exhibition, featuring the ambitious glass installations of Graham Caldwell, on display through April 4. He's another well-known local talent who's no longer local -- his talent also comes to us from Brooklyn.

So far, neither Caldwell nor Whitmore has managed a deep penetration into the New York scene. They don't have dealers there, and have only started to make contacts that might lead to non-commercial shows. But both feel the move north has put them closer to where they want to be in their careers.

* * *

"It seemed a good time to shake things up and throw myself into a bigger pond," says Whitmore, who made the move nine months ago. He's 30, slim, with the stiff jeans, long hair, scraggly beard and all-around Jesus look currently favored in Brooklyn. "As an artist, the thing that interests you is putting yourself into challenging places," he says.

In his new home, he gets "a big inspiration from something" at least once a week, from the music scene to the latest art in Chelsea to the Old Masters at the great museums (Whitmore's art looks back as well as forward). Above all, in New York, there is the sense that "everybody is making art." At first, Whitmore says, he was unnerved by the competition, but then he came to realize that it "really helps you focus on what's special in your art."

To learn how to make significant work, Whitmore points out, "you've got to know where everybody else is at." And no matter how good a smaller art scene may be -- thanks partly to its museums and art schools, Washington's is better than those in many cities of the same size -- it doesn't provide the fodder of a major center like New York.

In his first shows in Washington, Whitmore achieved a slick, signature look that made him stand out from the local crowd: He mixed flamboyant brushwork with pop references that ranged from Snow White to NASA. His work looked like French rococo painting channeled through de Kooning channeled through Disney. In New York, he seems to have been forced into a broader scope of subjects, approaches and techniques. Paintings in his latest show at G ranged from a woman's silhouette smeared in white onto raw canvas, to a tasteful landscape crossed-out in fluorescent green, to a surprisingly straight -- but slyly satiric -- portrait of Nancy Reagan.

Whitmore lives in Bushwick, an artist-friendly, grubby neighborhood of cheap housing and light industry. That's a mix that artists love, because it gives them living and studio space without a big commute between them. And it's hard to find in D.C. Whitmore's Brooklyn rent is about the same as when he lived in a group house in Mount Pleasant. The tight railroad apartment he shares with his pregnant partner, who designs clothes, costs about $1,300 a month; their rear bedroom doubles as a joint studio. He says day jobs are no harder to find than in D.C. (He's working as a carpenter.) There was no reason not to make the move, he concludes.


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