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Demonstrators gather to protest removal of Wojnarowicz art from National Portrait Gallery

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 3, 2010; 12:26 AM

Despite Thursday evening's chill, about 100 demonstrators - many of them artists - gathered outside Transformer Gallery to protest Tuesday's removal of David Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly" artwork from the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" show.

"This is a sign of solidarity and a call to our lawmakers that silence equals death," said Transformer Executive Director Victoria Reis, invoking the name of the late-'80s "Silence=Death" campaign by the New York City activist group ACT UP.

(PHOTOS: March for a controversial video)

Protesters watched Wojnarowicz's four-minute banned video - which the gallery began screening in its front window Wednesday afternoon - and volunteers distributed paper masks emblazoned with the faces of Wojnarowicz and poet Arthur Rimbaud (the pink-hued masks referred to the artist's Rimbaud-themed photo series from the late '70s).

Demonstrators had sharp words for the Smithsonian Institution's portrait gallery and members of Congress.

"It's an attack on the American people," said Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey, 57, a nationally recognized artist who has had solo shows at the Walker Art Center, the Queens Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts. "Lawmakers are saying that we're not smart enough to make our own decisions on what to see."

"This could have been a teaching moment, but the Smithsonian didn't have enough backbone to allow that," said Bey, who was visiting Washington this week for meetings with the National Endowment for the Arts. "It sets a very bad precedent."

"I came out because I feel outrage against the intimidation of our lawmakers, many of whom haven't seen the entire exhibition," said Andrew Korfhage, 36, a Washington area writer and performer who had heard about the protest online.

At 6 p.m., the group made its way east on P Street, turned right at Ninth Street and stopped at the top of the National Portrait Gallery's G Street steps. The masked demonstrators stood in silent vigil as passers-by gawked.

"I hope there will be a reasonable outcome," said protester Don Russell, 56, who was executive director of Washington Project for the Arts in the mid-'90s. "Though I don't think there will be."

Weekend picks

Breaking from your National Portrait Gallery protest? Didn't make it to Art Basel Miami Beach? Here's what to see (and avoid) in the galleries (and on the street) this weekend.

Irvine Contemporary's second installment of its "Street/Studio" shows - the first hung this summer and bubbled over into the gallery's rear alley and onto Logan Circle street furniture - again runs both indoors and out, this time at two locations.

At Irvine's 14th Street NW gallery, you'll find a group show of artists who write graffiti (or wheat-paste it) but also produce wall-ready work. Among them hang a series of so-so Shepard Fairey editions, in which the artist mines iterations of his counterculture bromides to mediocre effect. If your Christmas list includes editioned screenprints of concept albums from the likes of Obey Records, this is the place for you.

At Montserrat House, the two-story brick storefront on Ninth Street NW that serves as the show's satellite location, you'll see art inside and out. Irvine borrowed the building from its current tenant, music and restaurant impresario Eric Hilton, who plans to put a studio and Internet radio station in the space. Right now, though, it's all plywood floors and hastily hung drywall, which makes it the perfect quasi-raw exhibition space for Irvine's graffiti writers-cum-Picassos.

If you have time for one piece here, make it David Ellis's video "Animal," a time-lapse creativity spree that flashes forward, stutters, stops and begins again in just over nine mesmerizing minutes. To make it, the artist spent six weeks creating and destroying a series of images, one atop the next, on a large-scale panel.

Over time, Ellis's picture references everything from action painting and post-painterly abstraction to 2 a.m. tagging jags. The video's Roberto Lange-orchestrated soundtrack of electronic buzzes and beeps, bird tweets, and crowd sounds fuels the frenzy.

Outside, there's a 24-hour show happening on the building's Ninth Street facade. Here area graffitist Gaia (a Maryland Institute College of Art student) transformed the building's face with a two-story portrait of modernist architect Le Corbusier. The early-20th-century urbanist's signature round glasses sit atop his forehead on the second floor as the man who imagined houses and cities as "machines for living" gazes intently onto a gentrifying Ninth Street. Those rigid modernist dictums? Didn't turn out quite the way he intended. Interesting that his face brings more life to this street than his ideals ever did.

Julie Wolfe at Hemphill

Count me among the Hemphill visitors who won't be making use of their free Julie Wolfe temporary tattoo.

A bowl of fake tattoos stationed at a gallery entrance never augurs well, but your intrepid Galleries columnist soldiered on, beholding an exhibition befitting its ill-advised party favor: superficial (the very notion of the temporary tattoo pains me), yet trying to be artsy, counterculture and wry.

The image emblazoned mirror-backwards above the words "Julie Wolfe 2010" on the black tattoo adhesive is one that repeats, in some form or other, throughout the show. Let's call it a heraldic cornucopia: a dense cluster of fruit and lilies surrounding a heart - of the kind culled from an anatomy book - and a writhing snake, which in turn wraps around a sword.

When iterations of that flower-and-reptile bouquet appear on Wolfe's large-scale canvases, they hang from chains as if Marie Antoinette's chandeliers or stake generous real estate in a canvas's center. They join the botanical, avian and other quasi-Victorian motifs on these works on paper, panel and linen (Wolfe adds the occasional skull-and-crossbones for creepy good measure). The result is work that looks like merchandise from a fancy card shop - they'd make excellent templates for all-occasion notecards.

What with the diamond dust and glass shards that glitter across many of these works, the emphasis is on surface and pattern for decorative ends. The net effect reinforces the gallery-as-papery notion - lovely but empty (after all, it's a card's written sentiments, not its visuals, that give it heft).

Though the gallery takes pains to position Wolfe's works as "blur[ring] the lines between good and evil, tranquility and violence, and decay and regeneration, portraying these forces as less antagonistic and more interconnected than their definitions suggest," I cannot find such life-and-death brawn here. Perhaps the artist should instead focus her efforts on jewelry design: Too few examples of her bronze knuckle rings and skull are on view in a gallery hallway here.

As for the tattoo, it's in my office if anyone wants it.

'Foto Baroque'

If Julie Wolfe's lightweight images denote a certain type of artist, then Cecilia Paredes and Victoria F. Gaitan are less dainty souls. Readers of this column know Gaitan's work by now; here she resuscitates a trio of images from the "Sweet-Meat" series of gorgeous women preening sexily amid fake blood and cupcake icing. The Maxim-meets-the-bulimic-set pictures should be read as in-your-face political statements.

New to me is the relatively more subdued work of Paredes, a Lima, Peru-born artist who splits time between Philadelphia and Costa Rica. Paredes's chameleon-like pictures find her dressed up and body-painted to match the botanical print wallpaper, fabric and flooring around her. She becomes a figure that's both there and not there - hidden in plain sight. It's a statement about women - their capacity to advance or recede, according to their liking, in adaption to their environment.

With just a few of pictures on view here, I've gotten but a taste. So far, so interesting.

Dawson is a freelance writer.

Street/Studio 2.0 runs through Dec. 18 at Irvine Contemporary, 1412 14th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; at Montserrat House, 2016 Ninth St. NW, Friday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Call 202-332-8767 or visit www.irvinecontemporary.com.

Julie Wolfe runs through Dec. 23 at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1515 14th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 202-234-5601 or visit www.hemphillfinearts.com.

Foto Baroque runs through Jan. 8 at Curator's Office, 1515 14th St. NW, Wednesday-Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Call 202-387-1008 or visit www.curatorsoffice.com.

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