The truly strange thing at this party is the clothes.
The party is in Blagden Alley, an artists' and musicians' party, maybe 300 people gathered in a piece of Shaw that is gritty city, a lot of razor wire and deserted houses. (And what's that ambulance gurney doing in the tall grass on N Street--how do you leave one of those things behind?)
Nevertheless: There's the tiniest feeling of Something Happening, an art scene hoping to turn into a coterie, even a mini-era people will remember someday when the young and the soulless have overrun Shaw with their wrought-iron fences and periwinkle gardens, their Disneyland perfection.
Yeah, I went to those parties, back when it was really a scene, there wasn't even a sign on the building, you had to know where it was, and you could actually park on the street.
Anyway: Here at the party in Blagden Alley NW, in a big concrete building called Signal 66, amid the eruptions of a band called Telegraph Melts, composed of ferocious cello, electric guitar and drums whose loudness and arrhythmia make people look as if they're staring at a mouse crossing the subway tracks and heading for the third rail . . . here in the horrible slow-cooker heat where window fans fail to gain any headway against air the consistency of gruel . . . and here amid Jason Horowitz's pictures of dolls' heads floating in gelatin, Robin Renay's Klee-playful painting that turns out to be three people who are way more than just friends, Steve Lewis's oil painting of a crucified dog, titled "Every Dog Has Its Day" . . . here, the truly strange thing is the clothes.
Just about everybody--musicians, artists, friends, fans--is dressed stone suburban normally: jeans, sandals, khaki shorts, T-shirts, sport shirts, even dresses, the full Bethesda lawn-watering outfit. No painted faces, no silver hair, not even any taut young navels, poignantly pierced.
"Is normal the new bizarre?" shouts Big Al Jirikowic, who owns Chief Ike's Mambo Room in Adams-Morgan, and describes himself as "drunk."
The new bizarre. Everybody else in America is in costume: surfer, punk, jock, heavy metal, Tommy Hilfiger B-boy preppie, WASP wistful. Maybe the way to rebel is to look normal.
Or think of it this way: Once, only Bohemians wandered around Greenwich Village or North Beach wearing sandals and T-shirts. Now we all dress like this. So either the Bohemians have taken over the establishment, or the establishment has co-opted the Bohemians.
Or it doesn't matter what you wear, any more than it matters what kind of art you make, no more cubism leading to abstract expressionism, no more inevitable progress in style, converging on some single dialectical truth.
"The style question is over," says Steve Lewis, one of the artists in this building. "Abstract, photo-realist, photography, figurative--it doesn't make any difference now. You do what you want."
He is 32, old enough to have it together, not old enough to worry about keeping it together. Serious, cheerful, energetic.
"An artist can make a living in this town," he says. "All this new money, the entrepreneurs in Northern Virginia--the market is there. We just have to reach it."
He paints swashbuckling oils of everything from bouquets to obscene Disney figures. Like a lot of artists here, from the old industrial buildings by North Capitol Street over to Blagden Alley, Lewis hates Disney, by which he means the idea of turning Main Street into "Main Street," of imitating authenticity, putting the whole world into quotation marks, like "jungle" and "history," and turning art spaces into tourist destinations, like the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria.
Another odd notion here: Lewis and the new generation have outgrown the old wisdom that you have to do the Freudian agony-tango to make art.
Betsy Damos, who campaigned against the failed Disney project in Northern Virginia, has a sculpture studio at 52 O St. NW. "The whole thing of suffering--starving, living in a garret--it doesn't help your art. People don't dress funny anymore, either. There's a nice relief in that, that it's over. You don't have to be a nonconformist."
"Suffering isn't everything it's cracked up to be," says Giorgio Furioso, a developer/artist who owns Signal 66 and other buildings where artists get special rent deals. He wants to preserve whatever's left of Washington's personality. He says: "Washington is becoming Disneyfied." Along with the rest of the country, it's turning into "Generica the Beautiful," in the words of sculptor Randy Jewart.
(What did Disney do to these people in their formative years? If they hate the Disney Co. so much, it must have huge power over the American imagination. Has Disney considered an art scene as a Disneyland attraction? Why not get rid of that lame Tomorrowland and build a full-scale model of Jackson Pollock's studio in 1949 with an actor in jeans and sandals dripping paint on a huge canvas? Of course, that would require a lot of good old-fashioned Pollockian suffering on view, he being our best-loved tortured artist since Van Gogh.)
"This is a real place," says Eric Gravely, who runs a video operation out of Signal 66. "We're working on streaming images over the Internet of what really goes on here, the parties, the art, interviews with the artists." ("Streaming" is a hot word right now, meaning anything from cash flow to video transmission.)
"Cable came along--it was going to save our souls," Gravely says. "It didn't work out, did it? Now we've got the Internet, which is going to be the great leveler."
"We're populists," says Lewis.
What a strange notion populist art is, after a half-century of New York elitism. There are so many strange notions in this part of Shaw, which is starting to be called NoMa, for "North of Massachusetts" Avenue. Like SoHo in New York, for "South of Houston" Street. (It stretches, roughly, from Logan Circle to North Capitol Street, with sympathizers and allies as far north as U Street and Florida Avenue.)
Artists have lived in Shaw for decades, with the burned mattresses, abandoned cars and gunfire that are vanishing now as inner city turns into hip scene and architectural trash becomes quaint, soulful and antique--the ancient carriage houses of the long-fled bourgeoisie, slate-domed town houses, two-story apartment houses rehabbed into studios, artists all over the place, all the way over to North Capitol Street at the old fountain factory at 57 N NW, or the old pharmaceutical warehouse at 52 O NW; plus gays, lesbians and transgender folks moving in around their Metropolitan Community Church at Fifth and Ridge; plus architects, designers and other demi-artists in a neighborhood that used to be Drugs R Us with trash on the streets like the day after Mardi Gras.
Shaw/NoMa has a history of visionary art.
A janitor named James Hampton died in 1964 after building his huge and great "Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium" out of tinfoil, cardboard and light bulbs in an alley in back of Seventh and L. It's now in the collection of the National Museum of American Art.
Greg Hannan, who lives in a Furioso town house, did a recent assemblage inspired by a now-vanished Fifth and M apartment. "If you looked though this window it was this institutionalized green room, very high ceiling, with hundreds of balls on cable radiating out from the corner, and the rest of the room was plastered with crosses, walls and ceiling . . . with a single light bulb overhead."
At 57 N St., Jewart, says: "Art can be the new religion--it can save America."
He carves eerily shrinelike pieces out of stone, the sort of things that make you think of ancient ooga-booga stuff--Stonehenge or virgins being thrown into volcanoes.
At the same time, Jewart complains that "marketing for visual arts doesn't exist. People don't advertise, you don't see arts ads on TV. You watch Lexus commercials, they're beautiful. There are young people, people our age, who have piles of money, all this computer money in Northern Virginia, the start-up money, Washington never used to have that. We could be selling art to them."
Marketing seems to have become a sort of art form in itself. Chas. Colburn, who does big mathematics-based but oddly jolly walk-through metal structures, wants to trade work for newspaper advertising space.
Ah, but this raises the question of whether art is a medium itself anymore, or just a series of ideas and objects that have to depend on other media, a question that tiptoes toward the image-manipulation of the dread Disney, and the possibility of turning art into "art."
Jewart and Colburn are at the old fountain factory. The hallways are dark, as if they've been stained the color of manhole covers. They're decorated with sawdust, old bicycles and pieces of electrical cable, a conspicuously authentic artists' building--poor artists everywhere are always putting up drywall or taking it down, hauling out industrial junk or hauling in a rust-freckled refrigerator, fixing up their spaces until the landlord sees how nice they look and raises the rent till people with money move in and install air conditioning and bathrooms with showers. Then the building goes condo, the rest of the neighborhood gets fashionable, and the artists are driven out. This is the life cycle of many aging city neighborhoods in America.
So many scenes, so much gentrification. A casual look at the last 30 years brings up the scene north of Dupont Circle where the late Yuri Schwebler had a loft, and then Bob Stark and Lucy Clark, with the late Allen Bridge living across the street, Joe White and Michael Clark hanging around, trying to paste together a little Paris. But then rents got too high and a bunch of artists got together and moved up to Adams-Morgan, to a building called Beverly Court, except the scene never spread outside the building. There was Hanover Place with Ramon Osuna trying to build a scene, and the Eckington School and Alice Denny and then Walter Hopps curating the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. It's like the history of the Balkans--endless instability and exile.
But right now, the artists are still at 57 N. The floors are still concrete. There's still the occasional alfresco night music of gunfire. Much authenticity, little Disney.
"People love to come down here," says Marcia Hart, an architect who lives here. "What we don't want it to turn into is the Torpedo Factory, a tourist destination."
"My art is about what is reality--there's no Disney in my life," Jewart says.
What the NoMa artists need is a bar, the way the abstract expressionists had the Cedar Tavern in New York, the way Picasso had Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona--an artists' bar, someplace you can run into other artists without knocking on their studio doors.
Suzanne Reatig, the Israeli architect who designed the gay church at Fifth and M and who's planning to move in from Bethesda and live in the house she'll build at 10th and N, has a vision for Blagden Alley. "If they can have cafes here, with canopies and sitting outdoors, it would make everything such a success. Washington has a lot of hip urban people who need a place to live and NoMa is the place where it's going to happen."
Hip urban people: hip enough to understand the concept of authenticity while being rich enough to support outdoor cafes? Or will they just drive rents up so high the artists will have to go looking for yet another phantom homeland?