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Collector Mera Rubell makes rounds of Washington's isolated artists

Does Mera want to see them.

Out comes a picture of a couple engaged in an act that, um, can't be described in a family newspaper.

"Well, it's about a relationship," Mera offers, giggling nervously. Then, a big, big laugh. "It's relational aesthetics!" she cries, referring to the sober brand of theory now holding sway in the art world. The room is in hysterics.

It is getting toward midnight and there is much more to see.

Sunday, 8:30 a.m.:

Harrison Street NW

After huddling in Barbara Liotta's studio examining rock sculptures suspended from the ceiling, the group is back inside Liotta's living room. This is Mera's fifth studio since 5:30 a.m.

Liotta offers coffee and food. Gold gives the okay -- the group is ahead of schedule.

"There are artists who feel extremely isolated here," Mera ventures between bites of frittata. "I've never seen such isolation and loneliness." She asks Liotta who she talks to about her work.

Liotta pauses. Her answer: No one. Not other artists. Not her dealer.

Why not?

"It's some combination of not trusting it and not . . . " Liotta trails off. "I haven't a clue."

"If you were living in New York, you'd be pushing your work a lot harder," Mera says with firmness. "With all of the millions of dollars poured into museums here, why are artists so contained?"

A few minutes later, taking cover under Liotta's doorway before venturing into the cold rain, Mera considers the peculiar situation that is the Washington art world.

"The pecking order is so vague here, so nebulous," the collector says. In New York, top artists become untouchable. For them, it's a badge of achievement to pull up younger ones, to mentor them. Not so in Washington, where no one knows who's on top and everyone is on the defensive.

"It's like children fighting for their parents' attention," Mera say. "It's basic competitive survival here -- you don't give an inch."

There's a reason artists move to New York.

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