Woe to the artist with a thin skin. "I can't believe he's in the show," one well-made-up woman said quite audibly to another at Saturday night's opening of "The Washington Show" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
"I know," hissed the other, narrowing her black-lined eyes as the two of them turned to watch the subject of conversation walk to the bar for a drink.
The Corcoran welcomed what looked to be well over a thousand artists, collectors and patrons to its marble halls to celebrate the opening of the first show of Washington-area artists selected by a committee of their peers. More than 800 local artists entered works, and 79 were chosen.
That's a lot of unhappy refuseniks with predictable squalls and meows, but by and large the opening was an optimistic affair, much like the art itself.
"This is the first time I get to see my painting outside my apartment," said Allen D. Carter of his "Bike Ride 100," a large, brightly colored canvas with thick black outlines.
A Corcoran show of local art is always an occasion for assessing Washington's art scene, something Washington artists do as obsessively as a cat licks its paws. Some views:
"I haven't seen this much animation and controversy and good genuine smiles and venom in a long time," said painter Fred Folsom, dressed in what he called his disguise: a three-piece suit with watch chain and tie. "This is the most genuine energy I've seen since the '60s."
"The intent of the show was to take a broad look at what was out there," said Kevin MacDonald, a Washington painter and one of the six committee members who had the thankless task of selecting art for the show. "And I think I can say that at the moment it's very healthy. Washington artists have a bad feeling about themselves, always comparing us to New York. I wish there were more going on, but the demographics are different. New York has a much greater energy that carries the art. In the East Village, if you join up you're really joining up. Here, we don't have that. We had P Street, then Seventh Street, now Seventh is dead and things will move back to Dupont Circle."
"One of the things that's very important is to listen to the anger of the artists," said painter Sam Gilliam, "if you've got clean ears. What's not on the walls here is as important as what is."
Scenes from the opening: cellist, painter, sculptor, performance artist Rogelio ("It's Ro-hail-ee-o") Maxwell, a study of black and white in motion -- black tux, ebony skin, two-tone black and white shoes -- swooping from one end of the gallery to another supervising 110 volunteers who performed 20 of his intricate performance pieces.
"This one is called 'Man Staring at a Bucket of Rusting Water,' " Maxwell said ebulliently, mopping his brow and pointing to a man with a pail seated in the corner of an upstairs gallery.
The 20 people clumped like bananas to the side of the grand staircase were "Twenty Persons Wearing Yellow." The woman in a black beret was "Woman Holding Five Loaves of Italian Bread," an homage to Rene Magritte. "What I'm trying to do with these tableaux," Maxwell said thoughtfully, "started out being an homage to superrealist sculptors and tableau artists, but as it developed it had a lot of qualities of superrealist sculpture."
A man and a woman in an upstairs gallery, staring at Folsom's "Shadows and Green Glass":
"Can't you just see their personalities?" said the woman, looking at the canvas in which four loutish thugs carouse with handgun and heavy chains, seated at a table in front of a cinder-block wall. Behind them, an open refrigerator containing cans of Budweiser and a pair of running shoes and beside that, a mirror with a mysterious reflection.
Folsom's career has taken him from pure abstract painting to Abstract Expressionist landscapes to Impressionism. "Then I got glasses and discovered the world was in very sharp focus. That's the truth," he said, eyes twinkling behind his wire rims. "I took a long walk one day and I said the world is very fuzzy and then I got glasses and then I got into Realism."
There were haunting photographs, like John Gossage's "East Berlin," Leon Berkowitz's shimmering "Arc Red"; witty sculpture like John D. Antone's paper "Grassman" and Genna Watson's enigmatic sleeping man in "Below the Surface."
Not all of the art was on the walls.
"Isn't your name . . .?" Folsom asked a pale beanpole of a man dressed in blond Afro, black fishnet sleeves, rhinestone bracelets, tiny shorts, black tights and hightops.
The beanpole looked mortified in a theatrical way, raised his long fingers to his mouth and whispered, "No."
At the end of the night a red-haired Washington drummer named Zach Swagger walked into an upstairs gallery, sat down at his drums and began a thunderous solo that he later described as "a takeoff on an African Burundi thing."
Lured by the music, the elegant and the avant garde converged, feet tapping slightly, faces intent. For one electric moment it seemed dancing might break out. But people remembered they were in a museum, so they watched until the show was over, then drifted away to other pictures in other rooms.