We don't hear much from alchemists these days, but I happen to know they walk among us. I rub shoulders with them at openings, shake their hands when I enter their galleries. The lead they're bent on transforming into gold is lackluster art -- work that's pretty but thin, or just plain thin.
The philosopher's stone, art dealers hope, is text. Once they've gathered artists around an important-sounding exhibition title, they request scholars, curators or the artists themselves to cook up a few paragraphs -- an essay or artist's statement -- that they hope will convert the work into gold-standard creative output. No matter that these documents are penned with the solemnity of a treatise on Titian. Nothing makes up for one fact: We look not upon a Titian.
It's happening right now, in Dupont Circle, at Conner Contemporary Art. There you will find a show with the highbrow title "New American Landscape" -- denoting, you'd guess, a group show of scholarly pretension. Please don't get excited. Only two artists, both local, the young Mary Woodall and mid-career John Kirchner, make up this show. Twelve works, total, are on view.
Their work has a weak conceptual footing. An essay by independent curator Susan Ross, which accompanies the show, attempts to make up for it. Her mission: Situate Woodall and Kirchner's photographs and video, respectively, within the centuries-old American landscape painting tradition. She argues that both artists' focus on removed, out-of-focus images of the outdoors mirrors contemporary culture's removed, out-of-focus relationship with the outdoors. Problem is, you can shoehorn an awful lot of artists into this argument.
"New American Landscape" proves instead that it takes only a flimsy premise and a four-paragraph essay to justify an exhibition. It's as if these artists, and their dealer, got swept away in their own pretty pictures, forgetting to request some meat, too. It's a problem that rests not just with Conner. I encounter this emphasis on style over substance here in Washington -- and New York -- far too often.
Which isn't to say that Woodall takes bad pictures. In fact, her photographs of water beading on car windshields and sunroofs, bedroom windowpanes and window screens, are sometimes quite pretty. The horizontal bands of green coupled with dark and light grays in "Element 2" and "Element 3" (nearly the same picture; the first is oriented vertically, the second horizontally) are overlaid with the screen's tiny grid, making for lovely pictures. But Woodall's photographs shot through windshields offer no respite from the unexceptional. No amount of concept-heavy text -- Woodall's artist statement describes how "these physical barriers affect our perception of the elements" -- can rescue them. (They have also, it must be said, been done. Japanese artist Naoya Hatakeyama comes immediately to mind. He shot his "Slow Glass" series through wet windshields in 2001.)
Kirchner's work feels thin, too. His nearly four-minute video captures nighttime walks with his dogs, who chase deer in the woods. Blurred and hazy, these gray- and green-tinged night-vision images are set to a mournful passage from Bach's "Goldberg" Variations. Light pulses on or, more often, wafts around the screen like smoke. Kirchner feeds us a series of potentially evocative images that fail to evoke much of anything. His most successful efforts are three dark and painterly film stills hanging alongside his video. But they hardly merit inclusion in our nation's pantheon of landscape artists, as Ross suggests.
Greg Hannan at Signal 66 If "New American Landscape" overstates the strengths of its participants, then longtime District artist Greg Hannan's modestly presented solo show at Signal 66 underscores his spectacular achievement. Hannan's sculptures give off powerful vibes of melancholy, ambivalence and paradox. Every piece makes a statement not through tacked-on text but by the sheer complexity of emotion it embodies.
Hannan presents us with something like a degraded 19th-century collector's cabinet. He offers a few specimens -- a super-sized sculpture of a leech, out of wood, with labial flaps that might render it airborne, a lumpy heart pieced together from sea-salt-polished bits of glass and the skeleton of a skate crumpled uncomfortably in a box. He includes several abacuses rendered much larger than those you'd find at an antique store; strung as they are with near-ruined tennis balls and softballs instead of beads, they couldn't be used to count change. And he shows several enlarged versions of found objects -- doll parts or fragments of neoclassical sculpture -- possessing both grandeur and decrepitude.
One can imagine these pieces in the possession an disappointed elderly man. They are objects of impotence and unfulfilled longing.
Among them, Hannan's "Abbadon," a 3 1/2-foot-tall headless, armless toy soldier rendered in maple, stands out. Hannan copied him from an inch-high British Redcoat he picked up some years ago. The piece is paradoxical: The soldier's jaunty legs move forward. But his torso got screwed on wrong. His top half moves, just as jauntily and with coattails flapping, backward. Submitted but ultimately rejected for an Irish monument competition, the piece speaks of the complexities and ambiguities of war. It's also a metaphor for a more childlike confusion. The sculpture's high polish and virtuoso carving underscore this sense of palpable disillusionment.
Did I mention that no curatorial essay or artist's text accompanies this show? Hannan doesn't need a statement. His work already makes one.
New American Landscape at Conner Contemporary Art, 1730 Connecticut Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-588-8750, to March 29.
Greg Hannan at Signal 66, 926 N St. NW, Friday 5-8:30 p.m., Saturday noon-5 p.m., 202-842-3436, to March 29.