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A New York Career Beckons Some D.C. Artists

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.

Still, Washington was good for Whitmore's career. He grew up in rural Maryland, and chose to go to college at George Washington University because of the "weird, magical quality" he found in official Washington, with its museums and monuments. He had his first shows at the prestigious but short-lived Fusebox gallery and then moved on to G, where his prices have gone up and where his last show sold well. (He still charges only about $10,000 for a fairly major work -- not enough, after expenses, to build a middle-class lifestyle.)

Whitmore says his commercial base in Washington continues to make life in New York possible. But, in the end, the intention is "for people to see your work," he says. And the chances of "making an impact" are simply slimmer in Washington than in the capital of the art world.

* * *

Surrounded by the cascades of glass in his current show at G Fine Art -- it's the kind of high-profile venue most Washington artists would die for -- Caldwell is gushing about . . . New York. "It's the navel of the universe. . . . It's where the art world is. . . . I love the place."

Caldwell, who is 35 but could pass for an art-school senior, got there about 18 months ago. The move has been energizing, but also expensive.

In Washington, Caldwell says, he had a good deal renting furnace time in a homey glass studio that he helped found, and where he had the run of the place; in New York, he has to spend almost $40 an hour to blow his sculptures in a big, impersonal workshop.

Caldwell has family in Washington, and he and his wife saved money by living with them, rent-free. But now, living in Greenpoint, just minutes from ultra-trendy Williamsburg, they pay about $2,000 in rent -- which is covered by his Washington sales and by her job as a book designer at National Geographic. (She now telecommutes.)

Caldwell says his community in Washington was "really nice." "I was able to live really cheaply. I was able to get a good start." But he sees a bit of Faust in that: "My bargain was to stay here -- maybe longer than I should have."

New York, with its tens of thousands of artists, provides him with a whole new level of energy. Caldwell says that in his studio building by the Brooklyn Navy Yard, there are eight or 10 working artists just on his one floor. "Just to see stuff happen -- it makes me feel like I have to keep working."

Forging a life as a creative artist, Caldwell says, is about more than just making interesting objects -- though the inspiration and competition that he finds in New York certainly help with that. (His latest works at G have added lights and wiring to the giant glass anemones and biomorphs he first became known for.) Existence as an artist, he says, is also about "the process of creating opportunities in a place, and becoming part of the artistic ecosystem in a place."

* * *

Annie Gawlak, G Fine Art's founder, is philosophical about seeing two of her young stars move north. "It has always happened. New York is incredibly exciting and stimulating. . . . I've always wanted the artists to do what's best for them."

Although some of G's collectors buy from Washington artists specifically to help support the local scene, Gawlak says they like to know that artists they've backed have "moved on in their careers."

But dealer Jayme McLellan, who runs Civilian Art Projects on Seventh Street NW, notes that a number of Washington artists who've settled in "Mount Pleasant North," as she calls the Greenpoint streets where many of them live, still rely on income from Washington sales. Whitmore and Caldwell represent a typical D.C. phenomenon, she says. In this city's small scene "you can establish a niche pretty quickly." Anything new and good really stands out, and quickly gets picked up by dealers, collectors, critics and art lovers. Whereas in New York, she says, a young artist is "just another number."

Washington's art scene has its issues of "provincialism," McLellan acknowledges, and it tends to have too much patience with "dabblers." Yet she's seen progress in the past decade or so. "I think someone who is really working all the angles can make it from D.C.," she says.

George Hemphill, one of Washington's senior dealers, points out that New York is "less the 'there' place" than it once was. World-famous artists now work out of Berlin and Vancouver, not to mention Mexico City and Beijing. William Christenberry, whom Hemphill represents, has achieved an international reputation without abandoning Washington, and veteran artists such as Sam Gilliam and Jim Sanborn have done fine from bases here.

Still, New York continues to woo many artists.

"I like to keep people here," Gawlak says. "You're always really, really sorry that there isn't enough to hold people -- but there isn't."

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