art review

Art review: Taking the Katzen roundabout

By Kriston Capps
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why, in a city with so many visual treasures as Washington, would an artist pay homage to its traffic circles? Forget the District: Why, in a world filled with so many fascinating objects and experiences, would any artist deign to dwell on traffic circles?

And how is it that two artists decided to investigate the same thing?

Approximately one-third of the art on display now at the Katzen Arts Center at American University does exactly that. Not, strictly speaking, hosting a group show or a show devoted to circles, the Katzen has invited six female artists to hang solo shows. It just so happens that two, Marisa Baumgartner and Nicole Cohen, both with Washington roots, conceived separate projects devoted to the traffic circle, the signature aspect of L'Enfant's design for Washington's urban grid.

However, it is the Katzen itself that illustrates the experience of driving through a traffic circle: Its six-for-one presentation will leave you feeling like a tourist trying to take a confusing turn off Massachusetts Avenue.

Cohen has hung records to represent traffic circles. As sculptural prints, these vinyl albums seem like passable metaphors for Washington's 29 roundabouts. The Google Maps printouts and older representations of the city that she affixed to the records don't add much, though. Had she decided on simple gestures to differentiate the circles, she might have created a witty study; instead, the circles look the same. Furthermore, she can't resist deploying a Capitol Records pun.

Baumgartner's take on traffic circles is, shall we say, more elliptical. For her solo exhibit, "Grande Avenues," Baumgartner takes so many approaches to traffic circles that the D.C. Department of Transportation should take notes. She pictures the horses and heroes at the hearts of Washington's circles in huge vertical photographic prints. Chevy Chase and Banneker circles are represented by photographs of plumes of water streaming from their fountains. For traffic circles with neither statues nor fountains, Baumgartner has taken a single color from the site and enlarged it as a representative snippet - a more conceptual approach. Maj. Gen. Artemas Ward of nearby Ward Circle wins the place of pride in her exhibit: An image of the Revolutionary War hero comprising thousands of transparent vinyl stickers appears on the museum's main window.

It's work that Gabe Klein, outgoing DDOT chief, might love to exhibit. But it's unclear why Katzen should be showing it - especially near the more subtle and studio-oriented works of Dafna Kaffeman and Linn Meyers.

Meyers also focuses on circles for her site-specific drawing on the third floor where Cohen's work is installed. Her installation, "A Very Particular Moment," follows the format of her works for other institutions, including a handsome wall drawing at the Phillips Collection (arguably her best work). Her latest work offers a hint at a new direction.

In addition to the usual all-over series of undulating lines, she has left a void - a bubble, perhaps influenced by the circular work on view.

Meyers's drawings work best at spectacular scale, and this one's no exception. She composes lines in the way of a topographic drawing, one following another; small variations as she progresses add up to huge swells and recessions that, taken in from a broad view, seem to shimmer. That void represents a declared, defined design, where in prior works she has let chance dictate much.

Kaffeman and Julie Linowes could serve as a second themed exhibit within the six solo shows. Linowes's dreamy videos, shot over still images, court easy comparisons to Gregory Crewdson, although the vivid use of color as movement also hints at video psychedelia such as Jeremy Blake's "Sodium Fox."

Tantalizingly, Linowes's videos depict blood, pig carcasses and Jewish prayer shawls - pointed imagery that has a correspondence in Kaffeman's handkerchiefs, which are embroidered with quotes from news accounts of terrorist attacks in Israel.

But any dialogue among the artists, political or otherwise, stops there. It's hard to have a serious conversation with Heather Wilcoxon in the same building. She paints monstrous, booger-munching exaggerated portraits like the best bathroom graffiti art by grade-school boys. Wilcoxon's comic monstrosities portray the sometimes frantic nature of art-making. On one piece, "Who's in Charge?," the titular question is scrawled along the side edge of the canvas. A pen in different handwriting answers, "Of who"- which could easily be the artist herself changing her mind.

Wilcoxon and Meyers carry the show, but there's no good reason to put them together. And, certainly, the Katzen is not bound to show a thematically coherent group. In fact, a selection of solo shows by six women represents an improvement for the Katzen, a museum that lacks identity and frequently suffers from too much work all at once. But in coupling two artists by subject - around the narrow subject of traffic circles - the other four women look like they didn't get the memo. In reality, those artists, whose work is driven by their studio practice and not a convenient local angle, stand out.

Capps is a freelance writer.

Six Women's Art will be on display through March 13 at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

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