Longtime Washington artist Sam Gilliam christened his latest exhibition "NEW." Truth be, the show -- not a solo of his abstract painting but one he curated for Rockville Arts Place -- isn't exactly that. None of these nine artists qualifies as a discovery, some having practiced for more than a decade. Their work, too, isn't entirely fresh.
Gilliam's aim, he told me, was to lift these artists from their solitary lives and get them to connect. To collaborate. To compete. He encouraged them to talk to each other. Says Gilliam, "Maybe the show should have been called 'Conversation.' "
In a way, the exhibition parameters uncannily mirror those of "The Real World," MTV's pioneering reality series. With the assistance of Hirshhorn curator Olga Viso and the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Lynda Hartigan, Gilliam picked the artist cast for "NEW." The nine, who create installations or large-scale sculptures big enough for each to warrant its own gallery, were forced to share just 1,400 square feet of space (save for Alex Mayer, who contributed wall panels).
Gilliam left the job of divvying up that space with the artists. Like a new "Real World" cast on move-in day, the artists decided whose work went where, next to what and whom. Gilliam's aim for this assignment was to limber up the nine and move them in new directions by having them interact with other artists. "These people are too alone," Gilliam said. "They need to be versatile." Although he did meet with the artists to discuss their work and its installation, he kept input to a minimum.
For the artists, simply staking out territory may have been a priority. In the Rockville gallery's main room, that wasn't easy. Seven artists, some able, some average, edge one against the next, often uncomfortably. Installations segue into neighboring installations. It's sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the next begins.
Such clutter diminishes the impact of good work. I loved Edgar H. Sorrells-Adewale's "Ritual in Rope & Text at the Crossroads," a commanding sculpture made from hangman's rope suspended from the ceiling. Its knot of nooses ends in a pendulum-like metal point on the floor, but the piece remains as static as if time had stopped. Although diminished somewhat by text the artist wrote on the floor, the piece conveys tremendous authority -- and would convey even more if it had a bigger space to itself.
Instead, the piece hangs just a few paces from the show's other best bet -- Ed Bisese's quirky nine-foot-tall figure, "Birdsong." Made from paper, cardboard and tape, this gentle giant bears a passing resemblance to Austin Powers's Mini-Me, with its spindly appendages poking from a bulbous body. Lighted up from inside, "Birdsong" makes a wacky Chinese lantern and a highlight of the show.
Now remember how every "Real World" season has its black sheep -- some obnoxious brat out to ruin everyone else's good time? San Francisco had Puck. Rockville has Susanne Carmack's "Passages." The artist crammed small wooden houses on stilts, foot-tall mirrors on the floor and unexceptional collages on the wall into a flat, undisciplined installation. The piece cries out for editing. It also taints nearly every piece near it. Sorrells-Adewale and Bisese endure, but Maria Anasazi really suffers. For a moment, I mistook the microfiche pinwheels of her "Yellow Pages" piece for part of Carmack's installation. Sorry, Maria.
There's respite from the main room's muddle in an adjacent gallery. There, a pair of artists who couldn't be more different seem to be hitting it off. Youngmi Song created a wedding dress and train from delicate white rice paper. Lynn Schmidt produced a cacophonous installation of ironing boards and funnel-shaped sculptures that remind me of squawky old ladies. Schmidt's bright, awkward found objects irritated me terribly (which might, though I'm not sure, say good things about the work). Song's pieces, while eloquent transformations of rice paper, can sink into sentimentality (she's scribbled words such as "promise," "faith" and "compassion" onto the train's bows). Despite their differences and weaknesses, these two artists work well together.
It remains to be seen if "Real World: Rockville" generates good ratings. Like its televised equivalent, the show features plenty of conflict and a few unexpected alliances. It sure makes for an afternoon's entertainment.
Abstraction at Mexican Cultural Institute
Making the most of the snaking galleries of the Mexican Cultural Institute, curators Berta Kolteniuk and Gabriela Molina mounted works by 12 artists -- six from Mexico City, six from Washington -- in "Fisson/Fusion," an appealing, if uneven, show of contemporary abstraction.
The show's strongest works have an architectural bent. Mauricio Alejo's black-and-white photographs of what look to be clear plastic blocks hang alongside Pedro Reyes and Jose Castro's video of a continuously morphing shape. The proximity underscores their structural investigations -- the photographs look like maquettes, the video like CAD drawings. In another room, Hector Zamora's installation -- clear plastic cord strung in a grid from wall to wall -- creates significant structure from minimal material.
Weak spots appear when pretty abstraction edges toward preciousness. Wendy Ross's wrought-iron works have curlicue forms too lovely for her rough-hewn material; she needs to toughen it up. And Antonio Sanchez's digital print back-lit by a light box, while an attractive juxtaposition of rainbow colors, doesn't pack enough graphic punch to stand on its own.
NEW, at Rockville Arts Place, 100 E. Middle Lane, Rockville, Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday to 9 p.m., 301-309-6900, through March 29.
Fission/Fusion, at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW, Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-238-8674, through April 25.