At its best, exhibiting art in streetside windows and storefronts is one part urban beautification, one part public service. It enlivens lonely stretches of sidewalk and pushes art under the snouts of average Joes.
So why do these venues too often neglect the health and impact of the art they're showing?
In windows, art battles light, reflection and the competing stimuli of hot cars and attractive pedestrians. The work had better be tough and loud and make its point. And it needs to be protected. Two shows up right now -- one at the Sofitel Lafayette Square hotel at 15th and H streets NW, the other in the windows of the former Hahn Shoes at 14th and G -- aren't living up to those requirements.
At Sofitel, New Yorker Sonya Sklaroff's landscape paintings, stashed behind thick panes of glass, are about as accessible as bank tellers. By day, the works get lost in their two-foot-wide, metal-framed nooks. Spotlit at night, they look much better -- that is, when the lights are on. Earlier this week, two of the 10 nooks were dark.
I like Sklaroff's nostalgic, impressionistic renderings of small-town America quite a bit. Sklaroff juxtaposes unusual colors -- lavender, rust -- with aplomb. But they're small, and their details easily lost when pitted against a building facade. Work like hers, accustomed to gallery treatment, wilts on the street. Sunlight poses particular problems for artwork. If windows face north, fine -- ambient daylight can't be beat. At the Sofitel, though, Sklaroff's paintings face south and east. For a few hours each day, they're roasting in direct sun. Ghenadie Burlacu, vice president of G&O Art, the firm representing Sklaroff and hired by Sofitel to manage its exhibitions, seemed unconcerned. "Any glass has UV protection, I guess," he told me.
For his part, David Beers, acting curator of the Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran's CornerViews Gallery, which occupies the windows of the former Hahn Shoes, remains sensitive to a window's hazards. He never hangs watercolors or photographs in the west-facing facade along 14th Street and "wouldn't do encaustic in July" -- the wax-based medium melts.
But the generous vitrines of the storefront Beers oversees present other challenges. In the current group show "To Be Determined," the plastic cables of Irene Clouthier's installation compete with dirt on the carpet and debris falling from the ceiling.
In case you weren't sure: That pile of white dust off to the right is not part of her piece. Beers, aware of the site's perils, does the best he can -- considering there's no electricity to power a vacuum cleaner. Once or twice a week, the curator sweeps up and rids the space of the detritus that "miscellaneous vermin" leave behind. Yuck.
If we're going to show art in windows -- I say, go for it -- let's give the work a clean, safe home. And let's exhibit work designed for maximum impact. Wham-bang installations. Lights. Colors.
Think Barneys New York at Christmastime. Simon Doonan's annual tableaux offer nothing short of spectacle. Here in Washington, check out Dupont Circle's Axis salon, which for years has produced punchy displays. Art requires special treatment if it's to avoid becoming mere window dressing.
'Ground Work' at Strand on Volta
Its name conjures colorful, if incongruous, images: London thoroughfares, West African rivers, AA batteries. But inside the elegant Strand on Volta gallery, which opened last week in Georgetown, the look is total Tuscany.
The one-room space, run by James Strand Alefantis (restaurant buffs will recognize him as the 27-year-old general manager of Dupont Circle's Johnny's Half Shell), is nonstop crown molding and high ceilings. The sculptures in the inaugural group show, "Ground Work," seem to love the classy touches. Against sage green walls, these classically inspired pieces evoke afternoons spent sipping burgundy in a millionaire's refined but rustic converted farmhouse. The artists use materials like clay and plaster and unvarnished wood -- the same stuff you'd find at that elegant country house. Too bad, though, that the sum of this fantasy is greater than its individual artistic parts.
Erin Root's eight-foot-tall steel-framed chapel, whose plexiglas walls are pocked with tiny shelves holding 450 vessels the size of sake cups, stands in the middle of the gallery. The simple structure conjures a house of worship, the tiny objects a reliquary collection. But the work feels more like a set piece than a major work of art. The tiny objects made from unglazed porcelain match the matte-finished plaster and clay used by the show's two other artists -- especially Carole Greenwood's four sculptures. Greenwood, who looks to have put in long hours at the National Gallery's Cy Twombly sculpture show two years ago, makes blanched and irregular objects reminiscent of the acclaimed artist's work. One ham-hock-shaped plaster piece is nice and meaty (its sloped form reminded me, curiously, of Rodin's "Monument to Balzac"). But several of her pieces are too Twombly for their own good.
Both Root and Greenwood benefit from the company of Margaret Boozer. Two of her elegant clay works -- one hung on the wall, the other leaning against it -- are something like sculptural paintings. Slabs of cracked clay that the artist has broken and then affixed in place like a jigsaw puzzle are framed horizontally, like abstract landscapes. They evoke sun-parched rock, stained glass and, of course, Italy.
Sonya Sklaroff in the windows of the Sofitel Lafayette Square, 806 15th St. NW, through Aug. 31.
To Be Determined at the WPA\C CornerViews Gallery, 14th and G streets NW (formerly Hahn Shoes), 202-639-1828, through May 31.
Ground Work at Strand on Volta, 1531 33rd St. NW, Thursday-Friday 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-333-4663, through June 7.