'Catalyst' looks at WPA, a place Washington area artists have called home

"Catalyst," an exhibition filling all three floors of the American University Museum, looks at the past, present and future of the Washington creative community, showcasing works by more than 150 artists whose careers have been touched by the Washington Project for the Arts.
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post staff writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 11:43 AM

A catalyst, according to the dictionary, is something that makes something else happen. Based on what you'll see and learn from a new exhibition called "Catalyst" - a roundup of local art in honor of the Washington Project for the Arts' 35th anniversary - I've got another definition: home.

That may strike some of you as odd, considering that the WPA is, in a sense, homeless. Oh, it has office space. And it does, from time to time, manage to cadge an empty gallery or two to put on a show, as it has here by co-opting all three floors of the American University Museum and its outdoor sculpture garden. But the days of putting down roots in a permanent space, as it once was able to do in downtown Washington, are, for the time being, over.

That's not the kind of home we're talking about anyway. Think of Robert Frost's more poetic assessment. "Home," he once wrote, "is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

The WPA, in other words, is less a place than a state of mind. If there's a structure involved, it's built more around moral support than drywall.

That's obvious, first and foremost, in the inclusion of works by such artists as Fred Folsom, Lisa Brotman, Betsy Packard and Wayne Edson Bryan. (Quick - how many years has it been since you've seen a solo show, in or around Washington, by any of them?) "Catalyst" is packed with solid, strong work by these and other artists of a certain age whom time, or at least the contemporary art world, seems to have forgotten.

Washington's museums have never been in the business of nurturing local art, as the show's curator, J.W Mahoney, correctly points out. And commercial galleries exist to make money. It is the role of nonprofit alternatives such as WPA to act as a catalyst - and a home - for art that might otherwise slip between those cracks.

Nowadays, of course, you'll find "street" art in lots of galleries. You'll also find commercial galleries that represent performance artists such as Kathryn Cornelius and video artists such as Brandon Morse. Both of these talented young people have work in "Catalyst." And both, at least to some degree, can thank organizations like WPA for creating the audience for art you can't hang on your wall.

One reason you don't often see work by some of "Catalyst's" artists is a sad one. Simon Gouverneur, Noche Crist, Kevin MacDonald and Don Cook are among the WPA artists who have died. MacDonald's suite of four untitled drawings of water - known as his "cancer drawings" - were the last pictures made by the late, great draftsman, who died in 2006.

There's an undeniable, if faint, sense of loss here. But that's to be expected anytime you look back at what was.

To its credit, however, "Catalyst" looks ahead with as clear an eye as the one it casts over its shoulder. While the exhibition checklist is heavy with names from the 1970s, '80s and '90s, the art of today's Washington is well represented. Look for standout work by photographer Jason Horowitz, conceptualist Molly Springfield, sculptor Ledelle Moe and painter Joe White. (The 70-something White is an exception to the rule about older artists; his one-man show is on view at the Jane Haslem Gallery.) On one floor you'll find a painting by Erik Thor Sandberg, a masterful traditionalist of the next generation. On another, you'll find a canvas by his former painting teacher, Margarida Kendall. The stylistic connection is unmistakable.

While at the museum, don't miss two thematically related side shows: "Claudia DeMonte: Everyday Matters" explores the career of one of Washington's early feminist artists, who came of age during WPA's heyday. "Ed McGowin: Name Change" looks at the work of her husband, who in the 1970s legally changed his name 12 times over the course of a single year in order to create 12 unique personas, under which he still makes art. Their legacy - of conceptualist pranksterism mixed with sober politics - can be felt in "Catalyst's" youngest artists.

And that's what this smart and loving showcase is all about. It may take a spark to ignite a flame, but it also takes a hearth to maintain that flame, for it to not just burn but flourish.


CATALYST: 35 YEARS OF WASHINGTON PROJECT FOR THE ARTS Through Dec. 19 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. wpadc.org/catalyst. Hours: Open Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; also open one hour before performing arts events in the Katzen, and from 6 to 8 p.m. Admission: Free. Public program: On Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m., curator J.W. Mahoney will lead a tour of the exhibition.

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