Blurring the Line Between Art and Truth

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

The sometimes slippery boundary between fact and fiction runs through "Paradox Now!," the exhibition at the Arlington Arts Center. What is the nature of art and truth? It's a question the show can't hope to answer. So it's content merely to ask it, in work by eight artists that relies heavily -- sometimes too heavily -- on the artistic put-on, a.k.a. performance art.

It sometimes works. When it doesn't, it's because what's missing is precisely the performance half of the equation, leaving "art" that, well, isn't always all that.

Take Ding Ren. Her contribution to the show, based on a performance called "The Replacement Project," consists of a series of signed, framed contracts undertaken between the Washington artist and several friends in which she engaged their services as surrogates. For $35, her friends would, for example, attend a university art class in her place. Other than those pieces of paper, however, nothing remains for us to contemplate.

How does one measure the success of her performance? Were her teachers confused? Delighted? It's as if she's displaying ticket stubs from a play you didn't see.

Even when there's more documentation, it's often not enough. Inspired by a circa 1945 Aubrey Bodine photograph of Baltimore housewives scrubbing their stoops, artist Megan Hildebrandt donned hausfrau drag and spent several Saturdays scrubbing other people's marble steps in the town she now calls home. A stack of empty Bon Ami cans in the gallery attests to the project, as do several photos of Hildebrandt at work. But if the artist's aim is, as stated, to connect with these strangers -- 70 percent, she says, were supportive -- why is there no sense, in either the matter-of-fact pictures or the short looped video that accompanies them, of what that connection meant to her? Or to them? More to the point, what of the 30 percent who probably thought she was nuts?

New York artist Mark Tribe explores a similar vein, hiring a local actor to recite a 1965 antiwar speech by Paul Potter, the former president of Students for a Democratic Society, on the grounds of the Washington Monument two years ago. "Paradox Now!" includes a video of the reenactment, along with a printed copy of the original speech. But something critical is missing: What must it have felt like to stumble across some guy haranguing passersby about Vietnam . . . in 2007. Was it a time warp? Or uncannily apt?

Florida's E. Brady Robinson's photographs of Holy Land Experience, a Christian theme park in Orlando that features stagings of Jesus's crucifixion near touristy attractions that include a rock-climbing wall, work because they don't require you to have been there to get the irony. It's all in the picture. Similarly, New York's Josh Azzarella's work, which digitally removes people from famous photos, also fits nicely within the show's theme. What is it about John Filo's Pulitzer-winning 1970 shot of Kent State University (minus a wailing Mary Ann Vecchio crouching over the body of a student killed by the National Guard) that we still get -- and that still gets to us -- even without the main subject?

But the best-in-show prize has to go to A. Clarke Bedford. The longtime D.C. artist fills an entire corner of the gallery with what is essentially a re-creation of his cluttered living room: Halloween masks and other salvaged junk-store treasures interspersed with such art objects as a series of oversize Pez dispensers honoring, say, Rodin's "Thinker." Along with a wall documenting the fake art career of Bedford's alter ego, Coleslaw Baklava, the tongue-in-cheek installation is a marvel of confusion. What's art? What's trash? And is there any difference?

Like Ren, Hildebrandt and Tribe, Bedford is a kind of performance artist, with the fictional Baklava as his main character. The difference is that Bedford/Baklava leaves us with something not just to think about, but to look at as well. As Goethe once said, "Thinking is more interesting than knowing but less interesting than looking."

Paradox Now! Through Aug. 22 at the Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington (Metro: Virginia Square) Contact: 703-248-6800. Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Free.

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