THERE'S SOMETHING sad and exciting about this time of year. We've passed out of the carefree sauna of summer through the diaphanous curtain of Labor Day and -- nostalgia or not -- there's no turning back. The nip of back-to-school is in the air. The commute stinks again and the arc of the sun is every day a little bit lower on the horizon. Already the first crisp whiffs of dying leaves are enough to quicken the pulse made sluggish by too much summer.
I found myself thinking about these things in the wake of a stroll the other day through "Options '99," the ninth biennial exhibition of work by emerging artists at the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran's off-site downtown gallery, projectspace. The dominant themes of the group show by nine young area artists are childhood, time, memory and that which does not last; but it's not just because of these bittersweet leitmotifs alone that "Options" can feel both bracing and -- at times -- surprisingly pathetic.
Part of it is my longing for a kind of art that hardly anybody makes any more in this age of the installation, the assemblage, the video and the performance. It's a yearning for an unfashionable permanence, for a solidity that can be picked up and nailed to a kitchen wall. And it's for this reason that the work of Maribeth Egan and David G. Jung -- despite their embrace of new technology -- is decidedly, refreshingly old-fashioned.
Egan and Jung, whose works are hanging near the gallery's front door (and you know what they say about first impressions), make good old pictures, you see, that most retrograde of art forms.
Egan takes photographic images (of a Barbie doll's head, for instance), prints them out of a computer on rice paper, mounts them on wood and then paints cryptic pictographs on top, "inverting, subverting, converting and perverting the familiar," in the words of curator Victoria Reis. Twenty-four of them hang in a tight grid arrangement, with an open square in the center where the 25th would be. That solitary image hangs by itself on an adjacent wall.
While her graphic commentary on the detritus dredged from her subconscious may be oblique -- and not all that labor intensive -- there is something reassuring about the medium's dowdy two-dimensionality, however far removed her computer-assisted paintings are from the paintbrush.
Similarly, Jung's 10 acrylic and epoxy paintings on wood (cut into the shape of TV screens) are a blend of the modern and the archaic. The lurid images -- acid-green and burnt-orange blowups of grainy television stills -- embrace the very electronic culture they pretend to mock. Ironically, as Reis notes of their love-hate relationship with the tube, "the further away you get" from these media icons, "the clearer the images become." Incidentally, they also double as purely abstract studies, in the manner of Gene Davis and Morris Louis's work from the old Washington Color School.
Less successful is Edward Janney's nearby offering, a meager stack of 'zines photocopied from a series of sumi ink-on-rice paper drawings of skateboarders, the originals of which are deliberately not on view. Called "War Becomes Me," the roughly 5-by-5-inch pamphlets are there for the taking, calling into question the notions of mass marketing and originality -- all of which is well and good, except that the drawings themselves are neither noteworthy for their skill nor for their distortion. Even as conceptual art then, Janney's message is only as lasting as the easily forgotten pieces of paper you slip into your pocket in passing.
Upstairs, Kim Baranowski's Bruce Nauman-esque deer, sculpted from window screen and zippers and an electrical motor, seem a bit out of place, if only by virtue of their static nature (one "shivers" but was out of order during my visit). Besides, they look a little too much like Christmas lawn ornaments.
Much of the rest of "Options" dwells in that slippery realm of the theatrical, consisting of often site-specific installations that must, thanks to their ephemerality, work twice as hard to get under your skin, because they're never going to get into your home.
Take Mica Scanlin's array of transparent photographic enlargements (made from original and old, found negatives back-lit with orange light bulbs and hanging on a clothesline-type structure).
Or Franck Cordes's melancholy proscenium-stage covered with sand and flotsam and backed by a black-and-white video projection of a burning paper boat.
Or Nina Martinek's spooky, room-sized welded cage and sound installation -- in which an empty child's swing hovers over a black, mirror-slick surface of water.
Or Jason Peters's accretion of old school desks and chairs, strapped in a swelling pile to the pair of columns that flank the gallery's staircase.
Or Renee Rendine's low-slung drape made of Solvy (a water soluble plastic fabric). On opening night, the artist crawled around inside the flat tent-like structure, melting holes in the cloth until it turned into a kind of lacy cocoon.
Each of these works is undeniably beautiful, in a way, and they all certainly cohere to Reis's theme of temporality, but their fleeting natures leave a forlorn sense that has more to do with the temporary nature of the art itself than with any ideas it espouses.
Maybe in the end the problem is not with "Options" but with me: I'm still young enough to love the thrill that installation can arouse but old enough to sometimes crave a thing that's built for the ages and not just for the season.
OPTIONS '99 -- Through Nov. 20 at projectspace, 625 E St. NW (Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown). 202/639-1828. Open noon to 5 Thursdays through Saturdays. Free. Web site: www.corcoran.org/wpac.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Sept. 25 at 3 -- Screening of Renee Rendine performance and sidewalk performance/studio art creation by Chris Oldland.
Oct. 28 at 8 -- "Optical Options": local independent filmmakers and videographers Allison Sheedy, Eric Cheevers, Mary Billyou and Jason Farrell screen their work.
Nov. 18 from 8 to 10 -- Closing party.