Galleries: Old is new at Touchstone; Rebecca Key turns back time at Transformer

By Jessica Dawson
Friday, September 10, 2010

From drought to deluge! We scrounged for art in August, then September hit. This week, we scrambled to see the latest shows. Our best bets follow.

If you're an oldster eager to celebrate how few things change and that most things stay the same, visit the new Touchstone, which is pretty much the old Touchstone, only relocated. Previously sited on an upper floor of the erstwhile 406 Seventh St. gallery building -- remember when Adamson and Numark were there, back in the day? -- Touchstone reopened last month after being homeless for a year. Friday night, they're toasting the New York Avenue storefront. Breathe deeply and you'll smell the rising biscuits at restaurant Acadiana next door.

What's new? The 1,000-square foot exhibition space sports the features of so many recent condominiums, restaurants and galleries: polished concrete floors, 15-foot ceilings, exposed ductwork.

As for the art, you'll see works by 50 of the gallery's dues-paying member artists; their quality level remains unchanged, which is to say middling. Here, titles speak for themselves: Janathel Shaw gives us the sculpture "Baby's Mama," which is pretty much exactly what you'd imagine. Harvey Kupferberg offers "Live Oaks in Fog," a black and white picture of, yes, live oaks in fog. And Rima Schulkind presents "Tinman," a -- you guessed it -- statue constructed from aluminum cans.

Also happening Friday night, the unveiling of Rebecca Key's Transformer transformation, which may prove the gallery's most brilliant use yet of its microscopic space. The Liverpool-based Key, 32, turned back time and gentrification by returning the gallery's east wall to its original form: the side of another building.

According to Key, up until the late 1970s the gallery's interior had been an exterior, a sort of street-side air shaft lending light to surrounding tenements. She'd dug up public records at the Martin Luther King Jr. library showing the gallery's tiny footprint in 1896 and also in 1965; comparisons revealed that partial infill took place at some point between those dates, but the particulars are murky. Key deduced that the roof over the storefront now housing Transformer wasn't installed until around 1980.

If the details are a little fuzzy, that's okay. Key is a set dresser, not an urbanist. She has worked as an art director on small films and TV shows for years; she graduated from art school and long made her own art on the side. Things changed in 2006, though, when she had a stroke. Left with a continuous sensation of pain on her left side that requires daily medication and plenty of rest, Key now relies on a cane to walk. The resulting lifestyle changes slowed her pace, but she's also had more time to focus on making art.

To execute the Transformer work, Key enlisted two former colleagues (all three met on the set of the British film "Dead Man's Cards" in 2005). Greg Winter, 36 (credits as a scenic artist include multiple Bond and Bourne films; IMDB him and drool) and Emma Dalton, 29, both flew in from the U.K. for the project.

Under Key's direction, the group has distressed one of the gallery's white walls into a reasonable facsimile of what it once was: the side of a brick building that now houses Mid-City Fish Market.

When I visited earlier this week, Winter was testing brick- and mortar-colored paints and Emma was out rounding up trash cans and garbage bags. Key showed me the alley a few doors down that inspired her design plans. She hoped to create a wall faux-roughed by decades of wear -- patches of weathered concrete plus bricks both grouted and un-, painted-over and crumbling. She also figured in a boarded-up window.

For Key, site-specific forensics has become something of a specialty. Past shows include the transformation of a gallery's exhibition space into its back office, putting the gritty business of art -- or a facsimile thereof -- on display. Another project found her turning a gallery (located in a studio building) into an artist's studio; opening night visitors feared they'd stumbled into the wrong place.

This kind of trickery isn't just one-note high jinks, it's tough love. Once we're familiar with a place, we almost always tune it out. Key jolts us awake by making the familiar strange. For a moment, at least, we're aware of what surrounds us.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company