If "Art-O-Matic," the sprawling, labyrinthine exhibit at the Manhattan Laundry, had an official symbol, it would have to be the glazed doughnut, because that's what a person's eyes resemble after strolling past works by more than 350 artists. The space is so huge, the art so varied in style, concept and quality that it's difficult to take it all in at one go without glazing over.
But for those who can spend a few hours touring the vast Florida Avenue space--consisting of two buildings once used for an industrial laundry--certain things become self-evident. First among them is that the cream rises to the top. It would be wonderful to report that the show is jampacked with great visual art. That isn't the case. As admirable and laudable as the impulse and energy that went into the exhibition are, there is a lot of mediocre work on display. With but a few exceptions, the best stuff is by artists who are already relatively well known. That's going to happen any time that you open an exhibition to whomever can come up with the $25 entry fee.
Another generalization that can be drawn from "Art-O-Matic" is that the space is much better suited to installation and sculpture than it is to showing paintings, prints or photographs. The works that really stand out are site-specific installations, which incorporate the former laundry's structural characteristics--big windows, high ceilings, cagelike offices and hangarlike common areas. Although their respective works couldn't be more different, Wendy Ross, Nancy Sampson Reynolds, Richard Dana, Annette Polan, Michael Platt, Barbara Josephs Liotta and Lynn Scheppers all created memorable installations using materials ranging from wooden slats and lottery tickets to camouflage netting.
One of the most powerful installations is also the most topical. In "Raising the Contradiction," Renee Stout and Gary Lilley turn an unpromising, awkward corner into a pointed commentary on our shocked response to the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and our indifference to the young people being killed every day in America's ghettos and barrios.
Using a couple of tables and a baby carriage, the artists created a voodoo-inflected shrine filled with small personal items, totems and a picture frame containing the statement "Black and Latino parents/ Don't hurt any less/ Than white parents/ When they lose a child." The wall behind the shrine is papered with black-on-white silhouettes of the heads of African American and Latino kids. Scattered among them are sheets of paper asking questions like: "Where was your moral outrage before Denver?"
The most audacious and whimsical installation is Dan Treado's mixed-media piece "Beyond Total Vert (Going for Broke)," which consists of a well-made skateboard pit, the exterior of which is festooned with chalkboards bearing proclamations about various aspects of popular culture. There are also posters with the headline "Missing--Please Call Jean Treado," and a photograph of a young man on a skateboard, presumably the artist, launching himself toward the stratosphere.
It's an exuberant piece of work that comes complete with its own soundtrack, which visitors can play on a boombox. Whether skateboarders are welcome isn't clear. But given the size of the show, wheels would be an expedient way to prevent the glazing effect.
Parish Gallery is currently showing a lovely, colorful group of watercolors by Tayo Adenaike, a painter from Nigeria.
Adenaike, who was one of the artists featured in the National Museum of African Art's 1997 exhibit "Poetics of Line: Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group," possesses impressive technical skills. His paintings are beautiful blends of abstract and figurative elements in which the colors, primarily earth tones, glow with a warm inner light.
Looking at them calls to mind the influence that African sculpture had on cubism. In these paintings, Adenaike seems to be combining traditional West African color schemes with the cubist notion of breaking depiction down into many facets as well as the kind of pixelation one sees in some computer art. His lines and shapes look familiar at first glance, like variations on a theme by Picasso. But on longer viewing, everything begins to shift, and elements such as an underlying grid pattern rise to the surface. They are very sophisticated, intriguing works.
The Museum of Contemporary Art's "POPaganda" exhibit is a rowdy, rollicking affair featuring paintings and drawings by Anthony Ausgang, Michael Reidy, Ron English, Daniel Johnston and the husband-wife team of Michael Clark and Felicity Hogan, who also operate the gallery.
There's a lot of bizarre work here, including most of Johnston's weird, surreal but oddly beautiful drawings and English's "POPaganda," which depicts Mickey Mouse in crucifixion pose on a mousetrap with nails driven through his hands and feet.
But the most compelling works are Clark's and Hogan's newest paintings, which are a heady blend of Pop Art style--think neon colors--and erotic subject matter drawn from Renaissance paintings. Some are more sexually explicit than others, but all of them are superbly painted.
Art-O-Matic, at the Manhattan Laundry building, 1348 Florida Ave. NW, Wednesday-Sunday, noon to 9 p.m., 202-483-4655, through June 19.
Tayo Adenaike, at Parish Gallery, 1054 31st St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m., 202-944-2310, through Tuesday.
POPaganda, at Museum of Contemporary Art, 1054 31st St. NW, Wednesday-Saturday, 1-6 p.m., 202-342-6230, through Tuesday.
CAPTION: "Raising the Contradiction," by Renee Stout and Gary Lilley.
CAPTION: "Arsenal," by Wendy Ross, displayed among works by more than 350 artists.