"Putting on the Ritz" is the loudest low-rent art show this city has ever seen. Enormous, gross and voguish, it giggles, screeches, grunts. Its art is mostly awful. Its mood is subway chic.
Hundreds of young artists, most of them New Yorkers, hurled this show together. Their collaborative tantrum fills an abandoned, sad downtown hotel, The Ritz, 920 F St. NW. Its 40 rooms are mean, its corridors are cold. The place is full of ghosts--of dunderheads and drunks, check kites and hookers. The Ritz was once the pits. The artists who've transformed it have made it even worse. They've splashed color on the ceilings, scribbled on the floors and on each other's art, painted the cracked window panes and gouged holes in the walls.
Their exhibition feels like some noisy nightmare party held on the underground concrete platforms of the IRT with everybody there--porno queens and punks, howling children, poets, congo drummers, dadaists, refugees from happenings and from Paris Beaux-Arts balls. The crowded trains go howling by, every square inch painted. The commuters and the anarchists, the spray-can kings and muggers jostle one another. No one seems to mind.
"Putting on the Ritz" bores and shocks and disappoints, and surprisingly, surprises, until at last it overwhelms. In its sleazy and chaotic way, it succeeds through excess.
The show was put together jointly by the Washington Project for the Arts and by Collaborative Projects, a loosely knit collection of younger New York artists. Colab, as it's called, is the group that was responsible for the famous "Times Square Show," whose expressionistic bombast and intentionally bad painting set the art world buzzing in 1981.
While the artists of this city tend to prefer solo shows, white walls and austere installations, those of Colab follow a less familiar fashion. Their stance is anti-establishment, anti-elitist, anti-cash, anti-quiet and anti-government, of course. Though they tolerate each other--and truly ugly painting, leftover leftish politics and all sorts of graffiti--they don't smile at much else. But they scowl and rage in unison. Though many local artists are represented at the Ritz, it is the Colab style that dominates the show.
The timid viewer who dares enter finds himself proceeding along a dingy carpet painted with the names of all of the United States' secretaries of war and defense. An obelisk in black, a Washington Monument in mourning, stands in the middle distance, rhyming with a just-as-big-and-just-as-black ICBM nearby. Large, nicely airy figures by New York's Tom Otterness look down from the walls. Beside them hangs a painting of the Statue of Liberty with real beer bottles attached to the canvas. Nearby are instructions on how to construct booby traps--exploding books, teakettles, TV sets and sofas (these how-to-do-it pages were published by the Army in 1965). The show has just begun.
Much of the art that follows, like the scribbles-upon-scribbles that decorate New York subway cars, is hopelessly confusing. Few of the works are signed. None of them are labeled. Often it appears that an artist would complete a piece only to discover that a collaborator had come by to complete it further with a pinned-on note, a paint smudge, a hammer blow, a scratch.
Certain sorts of art--the bulletin board conglomeration, the figurative doodle, the room-size installation, the expressionist canvas, the found-object-on-a-string and the anti-Reagan slogan--appear time and time again. One of the 150 New Yorkers represented, John Morton of Colab, who helped put the show together, says, "Lots of us decided to do art work about politics. This isn't a vanity show. The reason we were interested is that it is here in Washington."
The artists of Colab tend to view Washington and the government--they cannot tell the difference--as monstrous, murderous and dumb.
When they portray Reagan, as they often do, they put fangs in his mouth or blood on his hands. Rebecca Howland offers a "jelly bean brain award to James Watt for service in strip mining our forests for coal.""The black flag of anarchy will fly over the capitol," promises a piece nearby. The president, his voice on tape, says, "I will not ask you to try to balance the budget, budget, budget, budget, budget . . ." until one wants to scream. Various victims--the unemployed, the poor, Central America's insurgents, indigenous Australians and Norman Mayer, who threatened to blow up the Washington Monument--are portrayed here as heroes. Politicians aren't. The slogans in this show are as subtle as the headlines of the New York Daily News.
Four floors, 40 rooms, of complete artistic license, conventional New York expressionism, fashionable abandon, slashing brushwork, overlapping scribbling, crudity and sleaze soon begin to drone. Though energized by verve, vehemence and vitriol, the Ritz show is a desert. But here and there, in all that busy blandness, certain flowers bloom.
Jim Sutcliffe, for example, has used colored lights and broken glass to make a crummy room seem graceful. Someone has written "I Love You Mary" on a wall. There is a touching monster sprawling in the basement, a dark room that's been brightened by dogs and many stars and a handsome canvas by Nicola Naimo. "This is not artwork," says a note pinned to the wall, which asks Tony "to tell Cheryl I am sorry I won't get to see her mom." The Ritz will be open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 8 p.m. and Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m. There will be performances at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings, until the show closes April 25.