Art review

Art review: Mike Shaffer's 'Lighthouse/White House' in Foggy Bottom exhibit

WINNER BY A YARD: Mike Shaffer's
WINNER BY A YARD: Mike Shaffer's "Lighthouse/Whitehouse" intriguingly mixes quaintness and eccentricity. (Blake Gopnik/the Washington Post)
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By Blake Gopnik
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The second Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit launched Saturday in the front yards of 15 houses in far west Foggy Bottom. The best piece on view, by the widest of margins, is Mike Shaffer's "Lighthouse/Whitehouse." It's good because, when you come across it on the lawn of a nice old Washington home, you can't tell right away that it's art.

The piece is nothing more than a skinny pyramid, maybe 10 or 12 feet high, covered with white vinyl siding -- the kind with a fake wood grain -- and topped with a small white ball that is wired to light up. The whole thing could be a steeple blown off a particularly extravagant McMansion.

Set among the Victorian houses of this little-known corner of Washington (bless this neighborhood association show for getting us to tour it), Shaffer's sculpture evokes the irresistible appeal of their clapboard quaintness. And it highlights how that appeal has been transmogrified in the suburbs into swollen architectural fakery -- gingerbread on steroids. The idiom of this "steeple" is borrowed from the good old days, but it would be absurd to imagine it actually attached to the roof of the old-time house it sits in front of.

Shaffer's piece also might evoke an eccentric, DIY mysticism -- the Masonic pyramid on our dollar bill realized by a homeowner with spare building supplies. It crosses Donald Judd minimalism with "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." There's a lovely, peculiar balance between the thrumming portent of the sculpture's monumental shape and scale and the comically domestic materials it's made of.

In the normal course of things, when you come across a house with a work of art in its yard, you can guess that someone inside has been taking Sunday sculpture classes. That's what you'd guess at once about most of the politely arty objects installed in the yards of Foggy Bottom. Shaffer's work stands out from the other 14, because you can't be sure if its maker is artistic or whacked.

The Foggy Bottom Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit

runs through Oct. 23 in the yards of houses between 24th and 26th streets NW and H and K streets. Mike Shaffer's piece is at 842 New Hampshire Ave. NW. Visit

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