Collector Mera Rubell makes rounds of Washington's isolated artists

By Jessica Dawson
Friday, December 18, 2009; C01

You could call it a Hanukkah miracle. Or the arrival of intelligent life from another planet. Last Saturday at 5 a.m., while the rest of us slept, megacollector Mera Rubell walked among us, hunting local art.

The Miami-based maker of artists' fortunes has, with her husband, Don, put a dozen Leipzig-based painters on the international art map. Together the couple bought some of the earliest Jeff Koonses. Their collection includes works by Takashi Murakami, Keith Haring and Kara Walker. Mera Rubell, 66, has access to art stars stratospherically more successful than anyone working in Washington.

And yet, here she was. She'd bolted into Washington for an art marathon, visiting 36 artist studios in 36 hours. Straight.

It was Mera's idea. (We must call her that. She'd insist.) She did it for the Washington Project for the Arts, the city's beleaguered but still humming arts group. She offered to pick 12 artists whose works would be among those that would hang in "Cream" a WPA benefit auction exhibition opening at American University's Katzen Arts Center on Jan. 30. A lottery system determined the 36 studio stops.

From her first appointment on Saturday at 5 a.m. in Southwest to her final Gaithersburg rendezvous at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Mera chatted, questioned, prodded, hugged, gesticulated and even adjusted one artist's errant scarf during studio visits of exactly 30 minutes each.

How did she do it? Efficiently. WPA Executive Director Lisa Gold traveled alongside and held Mera to a tight schedule. Her chariot? A white Mercury Grand Marquis belonging to independent taxi driver Bunchar Panich. Mera hired him from the taxi stand outside her hotel. He shuttled her and her small posse for all 36 hours, resting when Mera rested, in a hotel room she booked for him.

(Yes, she scheduled snacks and two naps back at her home away from home, the hip, low-budget Capitol Skyline Hotel near Nationals Park that her hotelier family owns. But does a break from 2:15 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. really count as rest?)

At each studio Mera was all warmth and encouraging words -- even as she told artists that they weren't working hard enough. Or when she asked if there was more to their practice when she clearly hoped there was. To put her hosts at ease, she asked about partners and kids.

"There's a wealth of amazing talent in this area," she gushed after 12 hours of touring. She has found work she was excited about, artists she wanted to know better, artists who turned her on.

Yet by the end of her trip, Mera came away with some stark impressions, impressions Washington art insiders already know but are loath to discuss.

Like: "There's nothing to fight for here. There's not enough contemporary art being shown."

And: "As an artist, you're not going to make any money. A few nice words from [this critic] -- that's all you can get."

And: "There are so many desperate situations here. It's scary."

Mera's troll through Washington's art warrens was akin to Santa visiting the Island of Misfit Toys. Below, a snapshot of her odyssey.

Saturday 4:05 pm:

Randolph Street NW

Mera's taxi pulls up to a modest brown rowhouse. She's fresh from a nap and 20 minutes off her Excel-mapped schedule. She emerges alongside WPA's Gold and Corcoran photojournalism student Jenny Yang, on board to document the occasion.

"I know you think we're crazy, right?" Mera asks her 3:45 appointment as he greets her at the door. A ceramicist who moved to Washington in October, Rafael Cañizares-Yunez wears a green V-neck sweater and his hair in a gray-flecked Mohawk.

The small group tumbles into Cañizares-Yunez's tiny living room, where vessels occupy every available surface. Mera eyes a trio of tall vases through her blue-tinted glasses. She cuts a sharp figure with her cropped hair crowned by a black bowler hat; from its band juts a feather dyed in bands of black and white polka dots, red and rust. Her coat looks like a regular puffy jacket, only deconstructed.

"I'm dying to know everything." Mera says.

Cañizares-Yunez leads everyone upstairs to see pastels laid out on a table. Mera looks hard, asking questions constantly.

Gold gestures a five-minute warning.

As Mera heads downstairs to see the last items on this tour, she keeps looking around. Major artists come to her mind.

Giacometti? Yes, he's everywhere in this work. Morandi? Too theoretical, probably, to match the sensitivity in Cañizares-Yunez's pieces.

Mera hugs goodbye. And like that, she is gone.

Saturday, 4:55 pm:

Quincy Street NW

Mera is standing in artist Isabel Manalo's garage studio examining cut-up glossy snapshots on a table. WPA Board Member Jan Rothschild has arrived. Art dealer Martin Irvine pops in. A revolving cast will enter and exit throughout this tour.

Mera is liking Manalo's recent collage work.

"It takes a lot of confidence to leave so much open space," Mera says, gesturing at a work on the studio wall. "This is an interesting direction. It's very exciting."

As she exits, Mera doesn't hesitate with the superlatives. "This was a treat!" She thanks, she hugs, she's gone.

"The gallery audience is very suspicious," Mera says as she moves toward the cab idling at the corner. "They think art is some kind of product. If only the audience could see the commitment behind the work. Artists really share something intimate."

Saturday, 10:58 p.m.:

North Lincoln Street, Arlington

Artist Jason Horowitz is pulling out massive flat files where he stores his outsize color photographs of bodies in extreme close-up. He rolls through images of a drag queen's painted mouth or a single spooky eyeball occupying an entire page. Mera and company ooh and ahh.

As the meeting winds down, Horowitz announces that he's got a few more pictures to show, warning the group that they're "at the edge of my practice." Does Mera want to see them?

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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