The dreariness, the drill, the violence of the bullies, the bland indoctrinations, the screech of chalk on slate. How did we survive? School days, school days -- the miseries of childhood, the smell of damp galoshes, the yearnings for escape -- haunt "Other Rooms," the group show now on exhibit at the Morgan Annex, a former D.C. public school at 2428 17th St. NW.
Sculptors, 26 of them, have filled the ruined hallways there, the cloakrooms and the classrooms, with room-size installations. Of the scores of exhibitions timed to coincide with the International Sculpture Conference, which opens here on Tuesday, this must be the most moving, if only for the memories that wrap it like a shroud. The participating artists -- among them Alan Stone, Genna Watson and John Dickson, Cheryl Casteen and Charles Flickinger, Tom Mullany, Renee Butler, Sal Fiorito and Greg Hannan -- include some of the most gifted working in this city. Yet the best of them take second place to the splendid and decaying spaces they have altered. The red-brick building stars.
Once known as the old Wilson School, it was built in 1892, when schools still looked like schools. It's been derelict for years.
If you climb the battered outdoor steps, and pass the cyclone fence, and open the old steel door, and leave the sun behind, you'll be blinded by the gloom. The colors, cracked and peeling now, blackboard-black and scuff-proof brown and that old, distressing green. And yet the place has grandeur. The 14-foot-high classrooms, with their tall and transomed doorways, are as classically proportioned as the galleries at the Corcoran, though they're tackier by far.
This is one of those exhibits in which you never see white walls.
The Morgan Annex was sold for $910,000 at public auction last October. The three developers who bought it (they run Columbia Associates) are young men who like art. Their carpenters are everywhere, hammering and pounding; bare bulbs light the hallways; copper pipes and ladders lean against the walls. They are filling it with condos now, but while they're busy building, they've allowed Andrea Pollan, the curator responsible, and the artists she's invited, to fill its grand-but-ruined spaces with new works of art.
The poignance here is palpable. And the memories are layered. Much about this show suggests a Washington that was.
Remember when the WPA, the Washington Project for the Arts -- with its creaking floors and bare-brick walls -- first brought art downtown? Remember MOTA, the yet-crummier Museum of Temporary Art just across the street? Or Ed McGowin's rich tableaux, spikey with found objects, or the outdoor installations that Al Nodal once placed in vacant lots and alleys? Or the works that, for a week or two, filled the narrow bedrooms of the fleabag called the Ritz?
Much of that old spirit fills this exhibition. Many of these artists are scavengers of skill -- driftwood heads and stones, plastic toys and fishes' teeth are among the things they've found. Others (Mel Watkin, Denise Ward-Brown) have used the school itself as their chief found object, painting on the surfaces or carving the thick plaster of its time-scarred walls. So many shows in town these days are cleanly lit and money-soaked that this unsalable exhibit in its beaten-up surroundings comes as a pleasure, a relief. Not all its art is grand. But the best is unforgettable.
Alan Stone's installation is among the most memorable. If you listen you can hear, softly, in the distance, the sound of children laughing. But his work of art is joyless. His theme is sound encaged. He's built a kind of prison, a metal room containing a mute, mysterious pile of black cases for band instruments -- tubas, snare drums, sousaphones, trumpets, French horns, drums. No brass glints in that darkness. Instead, through the mesh windows one sees darkness upon darkness. Somehow his untitled work conjures up sarcophagi, the silence of aquariums, Rene' Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, the thought of school-as-jail. A hunger for release is felt throughout this show.
Sometimes it's lighthearted. Baltimore's George Chang has filled the air with baseball bats, 16 baseball bats with wings, that float above the viewer's head like some boyhood dream. More often it is bleak and dark. The small, translucent photographs of the faces of young students that Gillian Brown and Lisa Lewenz have hung above school desks will make you think of ghosts. Tom Mullany's clerklike crucifixion, "Man With Outstretched Arms," is a wooden statue, eight feet high, carved in suit and tie. Here he seems no savior, but a martyr to the grown-ups' world. Many other images of suffering and imprisonment -- did these artists all hate school? -- shadow this exhibit.
"Floored" by Stacey Jones is a floor piece made of asphalt whose rectilinear severities seem Peter Halley-crisp or neo-geo cool -- until one learns that they replicate the floor plan of a penitentiary in Ohio. "Under" by Jeff Krueger, with its blood-red glow and tangled roots, its pitchforks and its Devil shapes, is a more familiar evocation of the under-earth, of Hades. Donna Reinsel's strangely horned and tailed sofa, lamps and chairs, with their eerily translucent hog intestine spikes, though more elegant by far, also conjure a decor suitable for Hell.
The school kids this show implies very rarely laugh. New York's Carter Hines, for instance, has conjured the despair of an adolescent hiding in a coal chute: "Claw into the mortar ..." says the legend on the wall, "effortlessly descend into the numbing, icy crust of perfect loneliness." Sal Fiorito's threatened student, who is made of steel shavings and menaced from all sides -- by pistols, barracudas and lessons that he dreads to learn -- walks a schoolhouse tightrope spiked with tacks. The conventional welded figures of Consuelo Echeverria cower from injustice. She too is from New York. Her theme is child abuse.
As so often is the case in contemporary art, safe political complaints -- about the bad things done to children, to Native Americans and rivers -- have crept into this show. Such art is much in vogue now. Usually it's dreary, with its dreariness increasing in direct proportion to its lack of ambiguity. Echeverria, for example, surrounds her tepid statues with headlines and statistics. Her theme is unexceptionable. Who approves of killing children? Finger wagging's easy. It is difficult, however, to conceive a work of art that is pointedly political, and beautiful and rich and suggestive all at once.
Cheryl Casteen and Charles Flickinger have done exactly that. Their installation is called "History Lesson." Columbus is their subject. Their work gives equal weight to the explorer and his legend and the evils done this hemisphere by his plunder-seeking followers. Yet their installation sings. Their central image is a boat, a boat that sails a blue-gray sea of flickering TV sets. That wooden craft has broken open like an egg -- and from it floats a vision, part dragon-headed long boat, part stringed harp and part dream.
The terror one feels often here -- before Genna Watson's figure with her torn-open womb, and John Dickson's bloody-handed goddess made of shards of glass, and Fiorito's spikes, Stone's coffins, Jones's jail -- rises with that rising boat into the elegiac.
Mysteries and holiness are evoked by the comets and the wheels and the Leonardo saints of J.W. Mahoney's ecstatic chapel of a cloakroom. Howard and Mary McCoy have suspended high above you spare and gilded branches -- they're like the angel-ghosts of trees. The straw spiral on the floor (though a bit too reminiscent of familiar works produced by Richard Long and Robert Smithson) leads one to a water-filled wishing well or caldron. Cleansing is their theme.
By the time one finds one's way into Renee Butler's enveloping and tinkling mazelike installation, with its strange, surprising music and its conjurings of bliss, one feels freed, as at recess, from one's thoughts of school-as-hell.
Andrea Pollan, 28, who somehow put this three-floor show together with just $3,000 raised from the community, runs a one-woman operation she describes as an "alternative mobile space" that mounts its exhibitions "in a constantly changing setting." "The Kunstraum" (German for "art room") is its name. "My only regret," she notes in the catalogue, "is that we may never have such a beautiful and challenging space to work in again."
Next week, with the opening of the International Sculpture Conference, Pollan's exhibition will have much competition. Thirteen other sculptors, chosen by the conference organizers, will show their work (both indoors and out) along Pennsylvania Avenue from Fourth to 17th streets NW. Twenty more will be exhibiting at the Henri Gallery. All the sculptors in the stable of the Bader Gallery will be exhibiting as well (and one of them, John Van Alstine, will place 10 monumental works in that gallery's new space at 1500 K St. NW). Washington's Joshua Smith has curated a show for Columbia Square. And more than 60 other sculpture shows will be on view as well in the city and its suburbs.
"Other Rooms," at the Morgan Annex, will be open noon to 6 p.m. until it closes on June 9.