Galleries: Review of 'Spagnuolo Collection' photo exhibit at Georgetown U.

By Jessica Dawson
Friday, November 6, 2009

Oh, the lucky Spagnuolos! Boston-based collectors Richard and Lucille Spagnuolo bought heavily into the art world during some of its headiest days -- the late 1990s and early oughts. The couple parlayed their funds into a cache of pictures by internationally significant artists such as Candida Höfer, Malerie Marder and Shirin Neshat.

Who are these Spagnuolos? Richard is a 1967 graduate of Georgetown University's School of Dentistry and operates a dental practice. The couple have collected for decades and now bankroll Georgetown's art department. The exhibition "Select Contemporary Photography From the Lucille and Richard Spagnuolo Collection" hangs at the university's recently christened Lucille and Richard Spagnuolo Gallery, natch.

What's interesting about this show isn't the couple's unique taste or vision, as some collector shows are spun. Instead, the Spagnuolos offer a primer on the art market's recent highs and lows, its fashions and foibles. To walk through this show is to understand how quickly contemporary art devolves into artifact. Though many of these pictures have barely reached school age, they're already relics of more exuberant times.

The Spagnuolos' collecting habits followed art-world trajectories to the inch. The late 1990s saw the mushrooming of the C-print, the steroid-injected color picture that often reached over-life-size proportions. Like a tribe of gorgeously colored Amazons, C-prints overtook art fairs and galleries. The ubiquity of the genre's top purveyors -- Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff -- earned them the mash-up "Struffsky."

There are no Struffskys here, but there are plenty of artists from their cohort.

Take Tina Barney's large-scale 2004 triple portrait, "The Granddaughter." Saturated in richly colored reds, the just-over-five-foot-wide picture has a dewy preteen at its center. The child's elbow rests against a glass case filled with porcelain figurines, Meissen perhaps, that signify old money. The girl is clad in confidence: She wears a red-and-white-striped Tommy Hilfiger shirt and a satisfied expression.

Her elegant but cronelike elders (the grandparents, we presume) sit gruffly in the shadowy background, operating as visual metaphor. Their faces urge sobriety and prudence. Yet by relegating the pair to the shadows, Barney effectively carts them off to the morgue. Who needs wisdom when times are flush?

Five years on, one wonders if the family hocked the porcelain.

Another pictorial strategy of the boom years: slavish documentation of excess -- palatial interiors, merchandise-stocked shelves, buzzing crowds. Doug Hall's interior view of Naples's Teatro di San Carlo captures the splendor of Europe's oldest operating theater. Built in 1737 by a Bourbon king, the structure was destroyed by fire in the 19th century and rebuilt.

Hall captures all the richness of that interior with royal red and gold and shining lights that dazzle our eyes. But just as the gilded cherubs and winged muses floating above the theater's royal box speak to an earlier era's excess, so Hall's copy feeds a similar, contemporary desire. The photographer offers us luxury by proxy; a few years ago we gobbled it up. Yet such appetites seem foreign today.

Remember Mariko Mori? A darling of the art world for years, she purveyed space-age Japanese mysticism in installations and video that won over curators and collectors. What's she up to now? Who knows. She's no longer hot, that's for sure. Here, a 1997 still from a video is presented on an acrylic stand shaped like some ancient Egyptian pylon. Intended as a theatrical gesture, that acrylic structure has aged poorly. Mori's space-age cool lost its zing in the intervening years.

YBAs -- Young British Artists, that is -- have a place in the Spagnuolo collection, too. Sam Taylor-Wood's 1999 "Third Party -- Ray and Pauline" sums up its artistic moment. Beefy Ray sucks on a cigarette while clasping a wineglass and squinting at nothing in particular. Nearby twirls Pauline, her back to us as if dancing to a tune inside her head. Two people occupy this frame yet both seem utterly self-interested. They are hip partygoers with smart haircuts and shiny jackets who've got nothing but themselves on their minds.

You might be wondering if anything the Spagnuolos touched turned to gold. Yes, in fact, some of their pictures have survived and thrived. They survived because of an edge of grit and satire. They thrived because they never bought into the bubble.

The brilliant Jessica Craig-Martin makes wicked fun of the rich. Craig-Martin zooms in on a woman's clawlike hand as it grasps a red satin purse. The work's title, "Rita Hayworth Alzheimer's Benefit, Waldorf-Astoria NY, 1999," situates that hand -- and its aggressive manicure -- as belonging to a society dame. You half-expect the blood of social-climbing to drip from her grasp.

Other gems: Philip-Lorca diCorcia's cinematic portrait of a drifter in a laundromat; the artist lends cinematic heft to a member of society's fringes (it's also one of the oldest pictures here, dating from the early 1990s). Another winner, also older: Carrie Mae Weems's splenetic spoof on the Snow White tale's "Mirror, mirror," where a black woman gets her comeuppance from a spiteful mirror. Weems's work glistens with righteous anger and self-effacing humor.

The Weems work is from 1987, and it is going to be just as important in 2087. As for some of the other Spagnuolo pictures? Future art historians will hold them up as evidence of what really mattered to our culture.

Dawson is a freelance writer.

Select Contemporary Photography From the Collection of Lucille and Richard Spagnuolo at Lucille and Richard Spagnuolo Gallery, Georgetown University, 1221 36th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday noon-5 p.m., 202-687-9206, through Dec. 11; visit http://art.georgetown.edu/galleries.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company